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With improved health comes success for Louisville

Mar 26, 2012, 10:00 AM EST

Louisville Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino (L) celebrates with his team after defeating the Florida Gators in the NCAA men's West Regional basketball tournament in Phoenix

The current run for Louisville, which is now up to eight straight wins, actually began a couple weeks before the end of the regular season.

Simply put, the Cardinals got healthy. And with “all hands on deck”, Rick Pitino’s team was able to get going at just the right time.

Four wins in four nights at the Big East Championship and four in the NCAA tournament now has Louisville two wins away from an improbable national title.

“We wanted to come in here and start to play better basketball,” said Pitino after their win over Cincinnati in the Big East final back on March 10th. “We started to get healthy about three weeks ago and started playing guys more minutes, and it was‑‑ our practices have been a lot of fun, even though we lost to Syracuse the last game of the season.”

Just three rotation players have played in all 39 games for Louisville this season: Chane Behanan, Gorgui Dieng and Chris Smith.

But while players such as Kyle Kuric, Peyton Siva and Russ Smith may not have missed many games their being banged up made it tough for Louisville to go full tilt in practice.

The rhythm that most teams are able to cultivate during practices throughout the season wasn’t there for Louisville as a result. But they were able to get that going at just the right time, with their play on the defensive end standing out.

Just two teams have shot better than 40% from the field against Louisville during their current streak: Marquette (44%) and Florida (50%). Louisville took care of the Golden Eagles by forcing 26 turnovers, and Florida didn’t make a 3-pointer in the second half on Saturday.

Louisville will be a decided underdog on paper going into their national semifinal against top overall seed Kentucky, and rightfully so given how well the Wildcats have played all season long.

But Louisville has their health, and with that the Cardinals have been able to improve both individually and as a team. The end result: a much-deserved trip to the Final Four.

“I never wanted a Final Four more than for these guys,” said Pitino after Saturday’s win. “They give me every single thing they have in their bodies, and they’re just the most incredible group to coach.

“And now they’re going to get this experience.”

Raphielle is also the assistant editor at CollegeHoops.net and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.