LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) A Louisville squad given little chance of advancing past its first NCAA Tournament game is still hanging around, poised to make a Final Four run.
That's what tournament wins can do for a squad.
With victories over UC Irvine and Northern Iowa, the Cardinals' outlook is much different than it was after losing two of three entering the tournament. Fourth-seeded Louisville (26-8) is preparing for a rematch against Atlantic Coast Conference foe North Carolina State (22-13) on Friday night in Syracuse, New York.
Coach Rick Pitino credits part of his team's rebound to the maturation of the Cardinals' freshmen, including Quentin Snider, who inherited the point guard role following last month's dismissal of senior Chris Jones. Louisville is also playing better defense, a major factor in the program's record fourth straight Sweet 16 berth.
It may have taken the Cardinals a minute to figure it out, but better late than never.
''I think we've realized certain things defensively where and how we get beat,'' Pitino said Tuesday, ''and I think we're much smarter in the past month than we've been. I think that's why we're a better basketball team.''
Pitino said the Cardinals were constantly getting beat ''because we were in the wrong place and I had to give up on certain things. It really helped us practicing the week after the (ACC) tournament.''
After initially simplifying schemes for a roster that includes seven freshmen, Pitino has seen players become more adept at pressuring ball handlers, denying passes and rebounding. He said Sunday night's 66-53 victory over UNI was Louisville's best game this season on both ends of the court. The Cardinals held the Panthers to 39 percent shooting, forced 10 turnovers and outrebounded them 30-25.
Louisville forced 14 turnovers in the previous win over UC Irvine.
The Cardinals look to carry that efficiency over to their second meeting against the eighth-seeded Wolfpack, winners of eight of their last 10. North Carolina State beat Louisville last month 74-65 on the Cardinals home court behind 21 points from dynamic sophomore guard Cat Barber (12.3 points per game). Though shutting him down is the focus again, they must also contain leading scorer Trevor Lacey (15.7 points) and Ralston Turner (12.8).
North Carolina State must deal with new faces in Louisville's rotation as well.
Snider has progressed from tentative newcomer to a more confident part of the offense, just what Louisville needed after losing Jones. He has combined for 26 points, nine rebounds, three assists and just two turnovers in both wins, important numbers for an offensively challenged team even with Jones.
''He's getting better defensively, he sees things very well, he's good on the break and he's fearless,'' Pitino said of the Louisville native.
Snider is also getting help from his fellow freshmen.
Though slender 6-foot-7 guard Shaqquan Aaron has weight to gain while 6-9 forward Jaylen Johnson must learn the system, Louisville veterans Terry Rozier, Montrezl Harrell and Wayne Blackshear have started to trust them and 6-10 Chinanu Onuaku more on offense and defense.
''We had a young team that the old guys lost patience with early in the season, and now they have it,'' Pitino said.
Some of that can be expected over the course of a season and right now it's necessary with Louisville needing contributions from everybody if it hopes to reach its third Final Four in four years. The immediate priority is reaching the regional final, a goal that once seemed out of the question before the Cardinals began putting the pieces in place at the right time of the season.
''The thing I conveyed to them is that there's a past, a present and a future,'' Pitino said. ''The tournament makes the future for all of us. I thought they had a good season, I thought they played up to their potential and now if they get better, they can have a great season.''