Senior Kyle Kuric sees it every year at Louisville. Come February, the Cardinals transition from fair to fabulous.
Kuric has been a part of a group that's won 21 of 29 games in the shortest month of the year, which bodes well when No. 19 Louisville (22-7, 10-6 Big East) hosts South Florida on Wednesday night.
"We're a very well-conditioned team, so it helps us out. Everything starts clicking," Kuric said. "The freshmen start understanding, not thinking out there like, `That was my rotation, my fault. They're there and now it's good rotation, good job and play.' Now everything is starting to come together, everybody's starting to play well together and that's just this time of year."
Kuric said Coach Rick Pitino's practices also help as the season wanes.
"There's a lot of running, it's a very intense practice, but until you see it and you're actually involved in it every day, you really don't understand how difficult and demanding it can be," said Kuric, who leads the Cardinals averaging 13.1 points per game. "Every day you're kind of sore, you're a little tired. It's just the normal day-to-day events around here."
Winning has been for Louisville, too, which is well on its way to its sixth straight NCAA tournament appearance. South Florida would like to join the Cardinals there.
The Bulls (18-11, 11-5) are playing much better since a 30-point loss at Georgetown by winning five of its last six to become the latest Big East team on the NCAA tournament bubble. They've also won ugly by failing to score more than 65 points in any of their last seven games and winning 46-45 against Cincinnati on Sunday.
Pitino said that's typical of the style of play this time of year in the Big East after Louisville had its own grinding game with a 57-54 win over Pittsburgh on Sunday in which the Panthers knew the plays the Cardinals planned to run before they were even called.
"It's that time of year in league play where everybody knows the other team's offense, so you've got to figure out now how can you push it up?" Pitino said. "We pressed Pittsburgh, we did a very good job, we got a lot of offense off it, but even when we pressed them, they didn't attack the basket."
At least Louisville can rely on its defense.
The Cardinals are allowing opponents to shoot 37.6 percent from the field, the third lowest mark in the country, and have averaged 9.3 steals per game. Pitino said he expects more from center Gorgui Dieng, too, after a lackluster performance against the Panthers.
"I was really disappointed in him after the game because he didn't block enough shots, he didn't; there was so many opportunities for him to do things he didn't do and he said, `Coach, I'm exhausted, my legs have given out,'" said Pitino, who gave Dieng Monday off from practice and was planning to lighten his load on Tuesday. "He's played probably too many minutes in practice and in the games. He's sort of hit that wall."
Louisville will honor its three seniors - Kuric, Chris Smith and Jared Swopshire - at Wednesday's game. Kuric and Smith both joined the Cardinals as walk-ons and Swopshire will graduate and transfer after the season ends with a year of eligibility remaining after missing all of 2010-11 with a groin injury.
Smith laughed again about the often-told story that Pitino initially thought he was a ball boy when he transferred from Manhattan, but has turned into a starter that's averaging 10.2 points per game as a second perimeter shooter after Kuric. He said as the Cardinals exit their favorite month, their biggest splash could come in March after a pair of one-and-done tournament appearances the last two seasons.
"Right now I feel like we're playing great defense and nobody's hurt right now, knock on wood," Smith said. "The sky's the limit for this basketball team right now. Any given night, I feel, we can have our breakout night offensively. As long as we start pushing the ball, I feel a lot of teams are going to have trouble with us."