LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Louisville hopes its latest extended break ends better than the last one.
The 13th-ranked Cardinals (19-4, 8-2 American Athletic Conference) return from their second eight-day layoff Thursday night at Temple (6-16, 1-9), beginning a busy stretch of four games over nine days. Louisville hosts Rutgers on Sunday and South Florida on Tuesday before a Feb. 22 rematch at No. 10 Cincinnati.
The Cardinals' last hiatus ended with a 69-66 loss to the first-place Bearcats. But they've won their past two and hope the momentum from last week's win at Houston carries into a full slate that could help close their two-game deficit to Cincinnati. The grind begins against an Owls team on a three-game slide despite featuring four players averaging at least 14 points per contest.
Temple is the only Division I school boasting that many high scorers, a challenge that Louisville coach Rick Pitino said his team has to work hard to defend.
"This is a very dangerous offensive basketball team," Pitino said Wednesday. "I don't think there's another team that has four 14-point scorers. ... They're a very dangerous basketball team that can put a lot of points up on the board."
If that isn't daunting enough for the defending national champions, there's the troubling trend of AAC teams going 0-8 after layoffs of at least six days.
As for Louisville's failure to capitalize on its last break, the coach suggested that had more to do with Cincinnati being a strong opponent than rust — though the Cardinals' timing seemed off in trailing by as many as 17 before rallying for its second and brief final lead that disappeared down the stretch.
To make sure the Cardinals keep their edge this time around, Pitino weaved an intrasquad scrimmage into their practice schedule. Those workouts have included junior forward Wayne Blackshear, who will play against the Owls after missing last week's trip to Houston because of a concussion sustained in practice.
So while Pitino considered it unusual to have more than a week off this late in the season, it has allowed a chance for the team to get healthy in time for the stretch run.
"With Wayne having a concussion, (the layoff) wasn't the worst thing in the world," the coach said.
Louisville's smaller lineup has played well with Blackshear and his return could help the Cardinals against Temple guard Dalton Pepper, its top scorer at 17.5 points per game and the AAC's top 3-point shooter with nearly three per contest. The 6-foot-5 Blackshear gives Louisville an even matchup against the same-sized senior, who has frequently played power forward.
Thursday marks the first meeting between the schools since Temple won 65-62 in the 2002 NIT second round for its fourth win in five meetings against Louisville. Reversing that trend provides added incentive for a Cardinals team entering one of the most demanding and critical parts of their schedule.
"With Cincinnati losing (to SMU), the race has tightened up," Pitino said. "The good thing about this team is that they never look by an opponent. They care of business each game out in terms of effort and preparation. That's one of our strong suits."