Huggins: 'We didn't compete'

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Back in November, Louisville opened the season with a loss -- in overtime -- to Iowa. First response from the Cardinals' coaching staff: We're no good.

Second response: How to fix it.

Last week, Cincinnati ran its record to 12-0 with a win at Marquette -- and yet the Bearcats coaches responded in similar fashion.

Sure, the definitions of good at Cincinnati and Louisville are higher than most programs. But truth be told, neither staff has felt comfortable this season.

If you believe Louisville's Rick Pitino and Cincinnati's Bob Huggins following the Cardinals' 93-66 win Wednesday at Freedom Hall, the two programs apparently are going in opposite directions.

Louisville has come a long way since that opening loss.

Cincinnati has suddenly regressed.

"We got together and we said we're not very good, so how do we get good," Pitino recalled about his coaches' meeting after losing to Iowa.

"It's true," added Louisville assistant Vince Taylor. "We were very worried."

At 0-1, Pitino was looking at a daunting schedule that included a game at Kentucky and a home date with Florida.

Both teams were ranked No. 1 when they played Louisville. The Cardinals won both games. In fact, they've won 14 straight.

How did they do it? Defense. Specifically, back to basics.

The Cardinals worked on creating more offensive opportunities for Taquan Dean and Luke Whitehead so the team wouldn't rely so much on Francisco Garcia.

Periodically, Pitino and the staff sprinkled in press-breaking principles of keeping the ball in the middle so the players wouldn't get run to the sidelines when they eventually played Cincinnati.

It paid off Wednesday. Cincinnati was always a step behind Louisville, chasing the Cardinals to the basket in the halfcourt or on the break.

"We've become a good team," Pitino said. "We judge it from practice. But there were questions like: Can Taquan Dean play the point? Can we rebound the ball? What's our bench going to be like? This team is overly impressive when they come together, and their character is off the charts."

Louisville has dealt with tragedies this season. Garcia's brother was murdered. Ellis Myles' father died suddenly. Pitino's mother's caretaker passed away. His former nanny's 3-month old infant died.

"We've had to deal with a lot," Taylor said.

But this team has stuck together. And it really began after the loss to Iowa.

"The feeling was after the first loss was that we were going to have a losing season," Garcia said. "I know there was a lot of nervousness."

There isn't now.

But Louisville is hardly over the hump. Sure, it was sensational Wednesday. But the Cardinals have the toughest Conference USA road schedule plus a nonconference game Sunday at Tennessee. On Tuesday, the Vols took Kentucky to overtime before losing.

Louisville still has trips to Cincinnati, Memphis, Charlotte, Saint Louis and Marquette. The Cardinals could lose all of those games if they don't play like they did Wednesday. They're playing well enough that they could win all of them, too, and reel off another amazing streak.

A year ago, Louisville won 17 straight games. The Cardinals are only three behind that this season.

And they really believe that they're not quite good yet.

But Louisville is good. Very good. Final Four good.

Cincinnati isn't -- at least not yet. And the Bearcats may stay that way until they figure out how much they want to listen to Huggins.

Wednesday's loss was Huggins' worst at Cincinnati since 1993 when he lost by 27 at North Carolina in the Preseason NIT. It's his worst loss against Louisville, the school's worst ever to the Cardinals. It's Huggins' worst defeat in the nine seasons in Conference USA.

"I don't lie," Huggins said about his comments after last week's win in Milwaukee. "Everybody says Huggs is grumpy. I tell the truth, but the problem is that you guys write what you want to write.

"I told you a week ago that we're not very good," Huggins said. "We don't score in the halfcourt. We don't run good offense. We stole the ball and dunked, and everybody got giddy. But we're not worth a (expletive). I've been saying that we're not very good. We don't run good offense. But even saying that, to come in here and get drilled is inexcusable."

Huggins wasn't through. And this time everyone in the corridor outside a cramped locker room was listening.

"We didn't compete," Huggins said. "That's the frustrating thing. We've got too many guys who feel sorry for themselves, and they hang their heads. That doesn't bode well for them in life after basketball."

Until the Bearcats get their act together, the team to beat in Conference USA is Louisville. The team that could make a Final Four run out of this league is the Cardinals.

A week ago, you could have made an argument that both teams were Final Four caliber.

Not now.

Assistants Dan Peters and Andy Kennedy said they were disappointed that the Bearcats didn't compete. Huggins said the team quit.

Cincinnati plays next at Southern Miss, a game that usually is a trap for teams in this league that think they can get an easy win in a sparsely attended game in Hattiesburg. Memphis already has lost there this season.

"Our guys started to believe that they were pretty good," Kennedy said. "They had a chip on their shoulder, which is the Cincinnati way. But then once they got acceptance they thought they were pretty good."

Huggins said he would fix the offensive problems and the defensive issues, especially in the halfcourt.

But the effort and competitive drive is up to the players.

"They're going to have to reach down inside for that," Huggins said. "I can't do that for them. I'm not the wizard."

Apparently Pitino is right now.

Kennedy praised Pitino for his ability to maximize the play of Louisville's most talented players. Taylor and assistant Reggie Theus marveled at how Pitino has made this collection of role-players into a legitimate title contender.

Unlike Cincinnati this week, Louisville hasn't had a game where its effort was in question.

The Cardinals' margin for error is too thin for them to afford that kind of lapse. Apparently, so too is Cincinnati's.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.