From No. 1 in the country to the verge of its longest losing streak in nearly nine years, 12th-ranked Louisville has coach Rick Pitino declaring Monday night's home contest with Pittsburgh a must-win.
The Cardinals (16-4, 4-3 Big East) beat Connecticut 73-58 in their first game as the nation's top-ranked team Jan. 14 before falling 70-68 at home to then-No. 6 Syracuse on Jan. 19.
They proceeded to fall at Villanova 73-64 on Tuesday prior to Saturday's 53-51 loss at Georgetown.
Louisville hasn't lost four straight since Feb. 12-25, 2004, and it hasn't lost four straight Big East games since joining the conference in 2005-06. The Cardinals will also play this game short-handed.
Forward Wayne Blackshear, averaging 9.2 points and 3.9 rebounds while starting 19 of 20 games, is expected to be out for a "short period" after spraining his right shoulder in practice Sunday. Reserve guard Kevin Ware has been suspended indefinitely for an unspecified reason.
"We have to get this win. It's a must game for us,'' Pitino said. "Because four (losses in a row), now you're on the verge of getting a sub-.500 record in the league, and you don't want to mess with that.''
Pitino already made a change to his lineup Saturday, starting Luke Hancock in place of leading scorer Russ Smith.
Smith, averaging 18.4 points, came off the bench for only the third time this season and scored 12 points on a season low-tying nine shots. He scored a season worst-tying eight points and shot 2 for 13 against Villanova and is hitting 33.3 percent from the field over his last six.
"I didn't get a chance to create my own shot because there are going to be some bad shots, and coach doesn't want that, so I've just got to get the offensive moving a bit," Smith said.
"At the end of the day I'm know I'm going to play. And I know how good I am. I've proven myself already. I don't have to go out there and just try and throw up points. I go out there now to just do what coach asks me to do. He wants to do things a little bit differently now.''
Hancock scored 12 points in his first start since Nov. 15 and Pitino plans to start him again versus Pittsburgh, which has won four straight and is coming off a 93-55 rout of DePaul on Saturday.
No one played more than 24 minutes as the Panthers (17-4, 5-3) set a season high for points.
"Obviously we'll be ready for Monday," coach Jamie Dixon said. "You just want to get wins. There are so many great teams (in the Big East)."
Pittsburgh ranks among the nation's leaders with only 10.4 turnovers per game even after finishing with a season-worst 18 on Saturday. Louisville leads the conference and ranks among the best in the country by forcing an average of 19.5.
"Too many turnovers were unforced I thought," Dixon said. "We've got to recognize that there are things we need to do better."
The Panthers use a balanced scoring attack, with no one averaging more than forward Talib Zanna's 11.5 points. Trey Zeigler scored a season-high 18 off the bench Saturday.
"Any night anyone can lead us in scoring," Zeigler said. "When you have 10 guys that can bring something to the table we're going to have nights like that."
Louisville has won three straight in this series since Peyton Siva became a starter, but the senior point guard may need to play better for that streak to continue. He went scoreless and took only two shots Saturday - the second game during the Cardinals' slide in which he's scored three points or fewer.
Smith scored a game-high 18 points in Louisville's 57-54 home win over Pittsburgh in the most recent meeting Feb. 26.
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