LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Louisville is hoping to get a little separation in the jumbled Big East when the No. 11 Cardinals host Marquette on Sunday.
The Cardinals (17-4, 5-3 Big East) were the nation's top-ranked team two weeks ago before three straight conference losses.
The No. 24 Golden Eagles (15-4, 6-1) enter Sunday's matchup all by themselves in first place after sixth-ranked Syracuse lost at Pittsburgh on Saturday. Marquette has won eight of its last nine but is searching for just its second road win of the season after dropping three of four.
Behind them is a five-team logjam, each of which has two or three conference defeats.
That includes Louisville, which stopped its slide with Monday's 64-61 win against Pittsburgh but begins a six-day stretch that includes the game against Marquette and trips to Rutgers and Notre Dame.
"I think you all are witnessing what the Big East is truly all about," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "It's probably ... the toughest it's ever been because the teams that have traditionally been at the bottom have gotten very competitive. No one knows how this conference will shake out. You can only guess."
Pitino "can't figure out" who is the league's top club, but Cardinals junior center Gorgui Dieng wasn't shy in offering up the Golden Eagles as the leading candidate.
"I think that's the best basketball team in our league," Dieng said.
Marquette coach Buzz Williams said it could be the Cardinals.
"I think they're as good as anybody in the country," Williams said. "They had a bad week, two weeks ago, but other than that... They've had as good a year as anybody."
While it may not be clear who is the best, Sunday's game will add fodder to the debate.
Pitino said Marquette's one poor game this season was an 82-49 loss to fourth-ranked Florida. The Golden Eagles have lost three other games by a combined five points.
Louisville and Marquette split their meetings last season, with the Golden Eagles winning 74-63 in Milwaukee before the Cardinals took a conference quarterfinal en route to the Big East tournament title. Louisville forced 26 turnovers in that second game, a performance Pitino doesn't expect to repeat this year.
"Junior Cadougan, like Peyton Siva, has really improved," Pitino said of Marquette's senior guard, who had eight turnovers in that game. "I don't think we'll have that type of success against him this time around."
Pitino said Marquette's attack is centered on getting "paint touches" through transition, with passes to the post and dribble penetration. The coach added that that approach has helped players draw fouls.
No Marquette player does that better than reserve forward Davante Gardner. Despite playing less than 22 minutes a game, he averages more than five attempts from the free throw line per contest and is hitting 85 percent.
"It puts a lot of pressure on your defense to stay out of foul trouble," Pitino said of the Golden Eagles' relentless pounding of the ball inside. "They will throw the ball to Gardner every time inside and he will take the guys on."
Pitino likened the 6-foot-8, 290-pound Gardner to another burly space-eater with Upper Midwest ties - former Michigan star and Milwaukee Bucks forward Robert "Tractor" Traylor. Besides being hard to get around, the coach noted that he's also an 80 percent free throw shooter.
The 6-11, 245-pound Dieng welcomes the possibility of the game being decided inside.
"If they really want to challenge me, I'm going to be there," Dieng said. "I'm going to tell my guys to not reach. As soon as they drive, just be solid. Have your hands up and I will take care of the rest."
Louisville overcame playing without forward Wayne Blackshear (shoulder injury) and guard Kevin Ware (suspension) to beat Pitt. Blackshear is set to play but will not start against Marquette. Ware practiced Thursday for the first time since being disciplined on Monday but Pitino said his game status was undetermined.
If Sunday is similar to Marquette's last visit to Louisville, fans are in for a show on Super Bowl Sunday.
Louisville rallied from an 18-point deficit with 5:44 to play on Jan. 15, 2011 to win 71-70, the latest in a recent string of tight games between the schools. Since 1996, 17 of 30 contests in the series have been decided by five points or fewer or in overtime.
"It was an unusual comeback, an incredible comeback," Pitino said of that 2011 victory.
"You almost had to do everything right to come back from that margin during that time. We don't want to have to experience that again at home. We're very excited to be part of that victory but we don't want to do it again."
Louisville will wear new "white-out" uniforms for the game and is encouraging fans to wear similar attire. The move does not sit well with Dieng, but the sartorial Pitino said he is "almost positive" he will not don his famous white suit for the occasion.
"I don't believe it. He has to wear it," Dieng said of the ensemble his coach has worn on five of the Cardinals' "white" outings since 2008. "He's been doing that a long time so I don't want him to stop it."
The Associated Press News Service
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