W. Kentucky-Louisville Preview
Last season, Louisville's problem heading into its holiday-season meeting with Kentucky was a lack of reliable shooting. This season, Rick Pitino's team isn't giving him as much to complain about in early season press conferences.
The 19th-ranked Cardinals are still a few games away from the much-anticipated in-state battle, though the next tune-up also fits that description with Western Kentucky visiting Saturday.
After a 76-67 win at Western Kentucky on Dec. 20, Louisville was shooting 43.8 percent and had cracked 50 percent twice on a perfect 10-game start. It went 6 of 22 from 3-point range against the Hilltoppers, and that was right in line with its 27.5 percent mark at that point. Those problems were only magnified in the loss to Kentucky.
The Cardinals (8-1) don't have a 10-0 start in them this year after losing at then-No. 3 Michigan State on Dec. 2, though there are far fewer offensive limitations.
After shooting 58.8 percent and hitting 10 of 24 from 3-point range in Wednesday's 94-57 home win over Kennesaw State, Louisville carries season marks of 52.5 and 37.0 into this year's 10-game benchmark against the Hilltoppers (6-4).
Granted, competition has been lacking, but last season's numbers didn't exactly come against strong opponents. Still, Pitino is offering little praise despite his team only shooting under 50 percent against the Spartans. The eight games over matches last season's total.
"It is easy to score right now because we are much bigger than some of these teams, but the good thing is we started throwing the ball inside," Pitino said. "Our post players are getting a lot of touches and that is what we want."
Top scorer Damion Lee had 18 points and is averaging 20.3 in four games dating to the loss.
While the offensive numbers have spiked, the Cardinals have remained sound defensively at 34.4 percent. Pitino used the Kennesaw State game to work on - and criticize - their zone defense.
"You could see we are not where we were last year with it," said Pitino, who has six newcomers in his regular rotation. "It is good experience in that regard."
Pitino thinks a stronger assessment is coming as his team tries to win for the 44th time in 45 nonconference home games, the loss being last season's Kentucky game. The Cardinals have also won 47 of their last 48 against unranked foes at home.
"We are in need for some good competition, and we are going to get it on Saturday," he said. "Western Kentucky is a very deep team, and we are going to have to play a lot better defensively against them. They are going to give us all we can handle."
Louisville has won the last six meetings in the annual series by an average of 19.5 points with last year's nine-point difference the closest among them.
Western Kentucky, however, has yet to back up Pitino's praise. The Hilltoppers are coming off their first set of consecutive wins over Alabama A&M and Indiana State, but they preceded that with a 95-64 loss at then-No. 12 Xavier. They beat Old Dominion in their previous game against the Top 25 on Jan. 10, but it's one of three wins in their last 20 tries against ranked foes.
Even so, coach Ray Harper seems confident heading into a difficult environment.
"We know that we are going to get their best shot, no question about it," he said. "Coach (Chris) Shumate and I were talking earlier today and he said, 'You know, we're pretty good, and we haven't even started to peak yet.' I brought that up to our guys. I told the guys we haven't even put the car in drive yet, it's still idling at the bottom of the hill."
Top scorer Justin Johnson is at least revving, averaging 19.4 points on 62.1 percent shooting in his last five games.