The Louisville Cardinals know that grabbing a few more rebounds could have made the difference against Cincinnati the last time the schools met.
The 11th-ranked Cardinals (22-4, 11-2 American Athletic Conference) vow to be more aggressive on the glass in Saturday's road rematch in Ohio after the No. 7 Bearcats (24-3, 13-1) outrebounded Louisville 36-25 in their 69-66 victory last month.
Senior forward Stephan Van Treese and redshirt freshman Mangok Mathiang understand that means making bigger contributions if Louisville hopes to forge a first-place tie. While the two have tried to meet those demands all season, trying to fill the void left by Gorgui Dieng's departure to the NBA, their improved play on both ends of the court has helped the Cardinals win five straight since losing to Cincinnati.
Extending the run to a half dozen will take a little more against the Bearcats, who rank just ahead of the Cardinals in field goal defense (39.3 to 39.8 percent) in the league.
"We just have to rebound, because they outrebounded us as a team," the 6-foot-10 Mathiang said. "Every time we outrebound a team we end up with the victory, and that's the way we're going to win this game."
That has certainly been the case in Louisville's last three wins following an earlier stretch where a rebounding deficit factored in both of its league losses. The Cardinals edged South Florida 36-30 on the boards in Tuesday night's 80-54 victory, with Mathiang and Van Treese combining for 14 rebounds and 11 points — both within the statistical windows that coach Rick Pitino envisions for them.
"For the most part we're comfortable with that expectation, though I'd like to score a little more," Van Treese said after his eight-rebound, two-point performance. "I think I could've had more rebounds (against USF) and missed three or four."
Louisville's victory followed strong rebounding efforts against Rutgers (39-24) and Temple (43-32) that keyed routs by 48 and 24 points respectively. Though Houston is the only winning team Louisville has beaten during the streak — the Cardinals tied the Cougars 29-29 on the boards in that road win — it hasn't diminished a Cardinals run during which they've limited opponents to 41 percent shooting.
"We are starting to play the right type of basketball right now with a high number of assists, a low number of turnovers and by and large, pretty good defense," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said.
Along the way, the 6-9 Van Treese and Mathiang have grown confident with their roles.
That was evident in the second half against USF, when four fouls each by Montrezl Harrell and Wayne Blackshear sidelined both for substantial minutes and paired the two big men as opposed to substituting for each other. Mathiang and Van Treese provided a presence that helped the Cardinals survive the absences of two key players and keep the Bulls out of the lane; Louisville outscored USF 56-26 in the paint.
"I'm not surprised," Blackshear said of the two. "Those two battle each other in practice and make each other better, and it showed out there on the court."
Van Treese sees room for improvement, but acknowledges that he and Mathiang will have their work cut out for them against Cincinnati's quick, aggressive lineup. This time the Cardinals aim to position themselves to grab missed shots that eluded them before.
It's just one of those things where you've got to have that mindset to get the ball, along with timing," he said. "With me and Mangok, that's our role and if we're doing that, we can be successful."