Before the American Athletic Conference tournament began, Louisville coach Rick Pitino said his team's play on the defensive end has improved so much over the last few weeks that it's starting to remind him of last year's run to the national championship.
If the fifth-ranked Cardinals continue to stymie opponents like they did in their first game of the tournament, an AAC championship -- and another national title -- could be in their future.Louisville looks to advance to the conference tournament title game when it takes on No. 6 seed Houston, which upset another Top 25 team to reach Friday night's semifinals.The second-seeded Cardinals (27-5) cruised to a 92-31 win in the quarterfinals Thursday, holding No. 7 seed Rutgers to 24.0 percent shooting. It was the fewest points allowed since a 54-27 victory over Arkansas State on Nov. 22, 2011.Louisville entered ranked second in the nation with 10.0 steals per game, and it had a season-high 19."They pay no attention to an opponent's record or how an opponent's playing," Pitino said. "They respect everyone, and that's a great quality to have."The Cardinals have held 10 of their past 16 opponents below 40 percent from the field, including three under 30 in the past three weeks. They allowed then-No. 19 UConn to make 29.4 percent of its attempts in an 81-48 win in the regular-season finale Saturday, and then-No. 7 Cincinnati shot 28.6 percent in a 58-57 home loss to Louisville on Feb. 22.That victory helped the Cardinals tie the Bearcats for first place in the AAC, but Cincinnati won the coin flip for the No. 1 seeding in this tournament.Louisville, which has won three in a row and 10 of 11, is looking to win its third straight conference tournament title in its only season in the AAC. Heading to the ACC in July, the Cardinals won the Big East tournament championship in 2009, 2012 and 2013.Houston (17-15) defeated a ranked opponent for the second time during a 5-1 stretch Thursday, beating No. 25 SMU 68-64 in the quarterfinals. It also got past then-No. 21 Memphis 77-68 on Feb. 27.Sophomore guard Jherrod Stiggers had 19 points against the Mustangs, going 5 for 9 from 3-point range after scoring a career-high 22 and shooting 5 for 10 from beyond the arc in 104-83 loss at UCF in the regular-season finale last Friday."My mindset was (you) never know if this would be the last game," Stiggers said. "Never know (if) there would be a tomorrow, so leave everything on the floor. Take everything they give me."Louisville won both meetings this season while allowing an average of 57.0 points and 38.0 percent shooting. The Cougars averaged 71.8 points and shot 46.5 percent in their other 16 conference games."Certainly we know we're going to have a tougher game with Houston tomorrow, upsetting SMU, Houston has terrific talent," Pitino said. "... Houston can come tomorrow even though we played great and they could beat us, we know that, so I think it's a humble spirit, understanding you play the same way against everybody."Now you may change your defenses and your offensive attack from a scouting standpoint, but you don't change the way you get up and play defense and these guys have been able to do that."