CINCINNATI -- One week into February, Louisville was the talk of college basketball.
The Cardinals had won 17 straight games and were enjoying a remarkable turnaround under second-year coach Rick Pitino. With player of the year candidate Reece Gaines, Louisville had thoughts of the Final Four.
Two weeks later, the praise has dried up, and the Cardinals have dropped three of four. Saturday's 101-80 loss at Cincinnati left them in a deep slump, with some deep thoughts.
"We've had a terrific season," Pitino said. "We're not going to let it get us down. If anything, I'm glad we got our fannies kicked. We'll see what we're made of.
"Our backs are to the wall for the first time. We've had our cake and been able to eat it. Everybody's been telling us how great we are. Now the corridor in the dorm is going to be lonely. My wife won't speak to me, so I'm going to be very lonely."
The Cardinals (19-4, 9-3 Conference USA) had their worst moments of the season against Cincinnati (15-8, 7-5), a team that was in a funk of its own. The Bearcats had lost five of six, their worst slide in coach Bob Huggins' 14 seasons.
Instead of getting itself on track, Louisville wound up with its most lopsided defeat since a 77-50 drubbing in Cincinnati last season. This one will mean big changes for the Cardinals, who were getting used to being the toast of the town, especially after they'd made such a big improvement over last season's 19-13 record.
"When we'd walk to class, everybody would say how great we are," said Gaines, who had 18 points against Cincinnati. "In the newspapers, everybody was saying how great we are. We didn't understand how tough it is to stay on top."
After an 80-73 loss to Memphis at Freedom Hall last Wednesday night, Pitino was worried that there could be worse times ahead. There was good reason to be concerned.
"I was afraid of this," he said after the Cincinnati game. "I've been saying all week that we haven't been blown out."
The overdue drubbing could be attributed in part to officiating. The game was called extremely tight, taking the sting out of Louisville's pressure defense. The Cardinals got four technicals, including two by Pitino, resulting in an automatic ejection with 11 minutes left.
Pitino doesn't like the way conference games are being officiated.
"I haven't been happy with it all season," he said. "It's got to be a two-way street."
Cincinnati went 42-of-58 on free throws - both school records - while Louisville had trouble getting to the line until late in the game. The Cardinals were 15-of-35 from the line.
The Cardinals made two more field goals and shot essentially the same percentage from the field as Cincinnati, but they couldn't overcome the lopsided difference in free throws.
"It felt like we didn't get a chance to play, for some reason," said Gaines, who got one of the technicals. "We couldn't get into a flow or rhythm because there was always a stoppage of play."
It didn't bother the Bearcats, who have taken an us-against-the-media approach to get out of their slump. Players were ordered not to talk to reporters during the two days before the game, and they voted not to talk after Saturday's win.
With an RPI under 30, Cincinnati still is in line for an NCAA tournament berth, unless the slump resumes.
"We've got to finish strong," Huggins said. "We're in great shape with the RPI. We've just got to win some games."
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