By Dustin Dow
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Xavier's opponent in Friday's first-round NCAA Tournament game in Orlando is on a much-needed break.
Louisville has lost eight of its last 12 games and limped, literally, to the end of the season. Injuries to its three main players have contributed to Louisville's (20-9) difficulties after a fast start in December and January.
Louisville forward Francisco Garcia (32) presents problems for Xavier's defense.
All three players, Francisco Garcia, Luke Whitehead and Taquan Dean, will likely be healthy enough to play against Xavier.
"I feel good about our team," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "I think we are practicing well and I think we are healthy for the first time in a while. I think we are playing good basketball."
A team that was once mentioned as a contender for a No. 1 seed, Louisville has dropped out of the national rankings in the last month and finished tied for sixth place in Conference USA with a 9-7 record.
The Cardinals will have had plenty of time to regroup for Xavier. Louisville lost last Thursday to Cincinnati in the quarterfinals of the C-USA Tournament.
Pitino said going up against Xavier, which has won 13 of 14 games, will be a daunting task regardless of his players' health.
"We know they are on a tremendous run," Pitino said. "To beat St. Joe's and to take them totally apart, you have to have great guard play to do that. And also to beat Dayton on their home court, they are playing great basketball. It's the toughest opening matchup that I have ever had as a coach."
Louisville lost its first game of the season to Iowa, but won its next 16 games and rose as high as No. 4 in the nation in the Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today polls. The Cardinals' defining win during that stretch was a 93-66 home victory against Cincinnati Jan. 21.
Louisville's losing coincided with the injuries after that win. Garcia, the leading scorer with 16.5 points per game, missed two games with two different ankle injuries. Whitehead missed a game because of an ankle injury, and Dean sat out two games with an injured groin that has bothered him for the last month.
In all they have missed five games and 32 practices.
Whitehead, a 6-foot-6 senior, is the Cardinals' best rebounder, averaging 7.8 per game. His inside play will be critical for Louisville against Xavier, which has two effective rebounders in Romain Sato (8.1) and Anthony Myles (6.5).
Dean is crucial to Louisville's 3-point game. The Cardinals rank 25th in the nation in 3-pointers per game with 8.0 and he leads them with 65, making 39.2 percent of his attempts.
"Their ability to shoot the three is another thing they look at as a trademark of their program," said Xavier coach Thad Matta, who will be going for his 100th career win against Pitino, who has 416 career wins.
Pitino signed a contract extension March 4 that keeps him at Louisville until at least 2010. He returned the Cardinals to the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time since 2000. Former coach Denny Crumwon national titles at Louisville in 1980 and 1986 before stepping down in 2001.
Record: 20-9, 9-7 Conference USA
Coach: Rick Pitino (64-29, third season)
Key players: Francisco Garcia (16.5 ppg., 4.6 apg.), Luke Whitehead (11.0 ppg., 7.8 rpg.)
Notable: The University of Louisville was founded in 1798 as the Jefferson Seminary in Louisville.
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