LOUISVILLE — Rick Pitino has had a Final Four team and a team that went into the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed during his Louisville tenure.
But it's his 2010-11 team, one that's a little short on size and talent but huge on moxie, that has become a personal and fan favorite.
The Cardinals showed their character once again on Saturday, rebounding from a tough overtime loss at Notre Dame on Wednesday to post a pivotal 73-69 win over Syracuse in the KFC Yum Center. Louisville built a 20-point second-half lead and then held off a late Syracuse rally.
"The fun thing about coaching this team is its heart and guts," Pitino said. "This is the fans' favorite team in the 10 years I've been here. They just keep playing hard. They're not as talented as No. 1 (seeded) team, and not as good as Final Four, but you can see their heart. We really haven't had a bad game in the Big East, and that's surprising."
All of this is coming from a club that was unranked and picked to finish eighth in the Big East in the pre-season.
"(Assistant coach) Ralph Willard said, 'This is going to be a tough year on you," Pitino said. "I said, 'Yeah, Ralph, like the last two or three have been easy. We'll get through it, and we'll have some surprises along the way. We didn't know that their attitude would be so phenomenal."
Pitino got his 10th win in 11 tries against his former boss Jim Boeheim. The Cards displayed dazzling ball movement against Boeheim's patented 2-3 zone in the first half that led to 9-for-17 three-point shooting. Preston Knowles' 35-footer at the horn gave the Cards a 40-30 advantage at the half. Knowles finished with 22 points, going 7-for-12 from the arc.
And Kyle Kuric continued his hot streak, going 5-for-7 on threes en route to a game-high 23 points. He was also effective as the go-to-guy in the middle of the Syracuse zone, hitting a trio of mid-range jumpers and dishing out four assists.
Kuric, whose national breakout game came against Syracuse in the final game in Freedom Hall last season, has now scored 70 points in his past three games and has been nearly automatic on threes from the left corner.
"We call that Kuric's corner," Pitino said. "If he can get to the corner, we look for him. Not many guys like shooting that corner shot. He's great from that left corner, and he's getting better from the right corner also."
Kuric hit two from the left and one from the right Saturday.
"I've always liked the corner shot, ever since I was a little kid," he said. "It's something my dad worked with me on a lot."
Another Cardinal on the uptick is Terrence Jennings, who scored 13 points, grabbed seven rebounds and had four steals. Jennings is averaging more than 14 points and nearly eight rebounds since stepping into the lineup for freshman Gorgui Dieng, who's been out with a concussion.
"He's giving us a big lift," Pitino said of Jennings. "The one thing about Gorgui going down is that Terrence was able to play more minutes, and he's playing terrific basketball right now."
Louisville went up 57-37 on Kuric's three at 15:29, but Syracuse went on a 14-2 run to close to within three (69-66) on a Brandon Triche layup with 1:37 remaining. Then Peyton Siva hit the first of two free throws with five seconds left to make it a two-possession game for the Cards.
Syracuse shot the ball well, hitting 51.1 percent from the floor and 45 percent (9-for-20) on threes. But it was the Orange's lack of activity in the zone in the first half that proved to be their downfall.
"We talked about not letting Kuric and Knowles shoot, and those were the two guys we let shoot," Boeheim said.
Pitino won his lone national championship at Boeheim's expense and, last year, the Orange went into the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed with four losses, two of which came to Louisville.
The win guaranteed that the Cards (19-6, 8-4) would enter next week in no worse than a tie for third in the Big East standings, and it established some separation between them and the Orange (20-6, 7-6). Louisville is also getting healthy. Rakeem Buckles returned to action after being out since the Kentucky game on Dec. 31 with a broken finger. Buckles didn't score and had five turnovers in 14 minutes but did tie Jennings for the lead in team rebounding with seven.
On an afternoon when U of L's 1986 national championship team was honored, Pitino said the Cardinals' selfless attitude is making the difference.
"Ego is the No. 1 killer of potential today," he said. "We have no ego. I've never coached a team, other than Providence in 1987, that plays more for the name on the front of the jersey. It just shouts out at you that they play for Louisville and not themselves."