LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Louisville coach Rick Pitino challenged his team after a five-overtime loss at Notre Dame: finish the regular season with a seven-game winning streak.
The Cardinals (21-5, 9-4 Big East) have responded and are looking for their third straight win when they host struggling Seton Hall (13-14, 2-12) on Saturday.Pitino said he wanted to get past the 104-101 loss Feb. 9, when Louisville controlled every period except the final one. He told his players last week that to get it done, they needed to improve in individually tailored areas.For Cardinals forwards Chane Behanan and Montrezl Harrell, that means focusing on free throws, while guard Russ Smith works on passing. Pitino wants center Gorgui Dieng to take more jump shots and floor leader Peyton Siva to continue to let the game come to him.If the Cardinals continue to improve and can show the same defensive focus they had in Sunday's 59-41 win at South Florida, the regular-season title remains within reach. Louisville is a game behind Syracuse, Georgetown and Marquette — all tied for first.Not a bad recovery for the Cardinals, who lost to Syracuse, Villanova and Georgetown successively after being ranked No. 1 in late January. And especially after Louisville's heartbreaking loss against the Fighting Irish.Consistent performances from Behanan and Smith are critical for the Cardinals. Pitino said Behanan — the West Regional's most outstanding player during Louisville's Final Four run last spring — can match the talent of Indiana's Victor Oladipo, one of the nation's top players this season, but not his concentration."He has the talent of an Oladipo, believe it or not," Pitino said of his 6-foot-6 sophomore forward. "Except Oladipo plays every possession. We've got to get him to play every possession."The message stuck for Behanan when his coach referenced the intensity of arguably the world's best player: Miami Heat forward LeBron James."A few weeks ago, coach talked about how Miami plays, how LeBron doesn't take a play off," Behanan said. "Since he gave that speech, that's one thing I try and stick in my mind: just try not to take a play off."Behanan (53.5 percent) and freshman backup Harrell (47.7) must improve from the foul line if they are to stay on the court as the season progresses. A plan to shift to a smaller lineup with Wayne Blackshear at power forward if their shooting doesn't improve is Behanan's motivation."My finger tips are on fire right now," he said, estimating that he shoots 160 free throws a day in practice.Pitino wants Smith to continue attacking but also find teammates when the defense commits. Louisville's leader with 18.4 points per game, Smith has had three or four assists in each of his last five outings."We all know that we're not a great 3-point shooting team, but that doesn't mean we can't be an outstanding offensive basketball team. We just have to pass the basketball," Pitino said. "When Russ passes the ball, we are much, much better at the offensive end."That doesn't mean shifting Smith to the point when Siva is out of the game. He plans to continue using Kevin Ware in relief, allowing his top scorer to stay off the ball."We don't need Russ thinking too much," Pitino said.Seton Hall has lost eight straight and 12 of 13, and former Pitino assistant Kevin Willard's squad has been wrecked with injuries. Sophomore forward Brandon Mobley is the most recent player to go down, suffering a season-ending right shoulder injury. The Pirates fell 67-46 to Marquette on Tuesday without Mobley, who averaged 9.0 points and 5.5 rebounds."The injuries have demoralized this team," said Willard, whose squad has its worst league mark in 29 years. "... We have to figure out a way to play the last five games of the season."Louisville beat Seton Hall 73-58 on Jan. 9 for its fourth straight win in the series.