January 02, 2016

Louisville was picked to finish seventh in the ACC entering a season of uncertainty after losing nearly its entire core from last season's run to the Elite Eight.

Through all the doubts and potential distractions of an alleged escort scandal, coach Rick Pitino has kept his expectations high while riding a pair of graduate transfers to an surprisingly solid start.

Now the 18th-ranked Cardinals plan to make some noise in ACC play beginning with Sunday's visit from a drastically improved Wake Forest squad.

Pitino hasn't minced words much this season, most recently expressing his frustrations about the allegations that a former assistant arranged improper meetings for players and potential recruits with exotic dancers.

He's been open about the play on the court, too, showing more disappointment than usual when things don't necessarily go as planned.

The Cardinals have fought through it all to start 11-2, with the only blemishes being a four-point loss at No. 1 Michigan State on Dec. 2 and a 75-73 loss at 10th-ranked Kentucky on Dec. 26 when Damion Lee missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Lee finished with a season-high 27 points and is averaging a team-high 18.1 after transferring from Drexel. Cleveland State transfer Trey Lewis is the only other Cardinal averaging double figures at 14.7.

Louisville has shot at least 50 percent from the field nine times after doing so in eight games all of last season. It leads the nation with a plus-27.7 average scoring margin and plus-14.5 rebound differential.

"This year would have been a disaster without those two guys," Pitino said after the Kentucky game. "If I didn't think this team was going to be special, one who could cut down the nets, I wouldn't let them see how disappointed I was.

"I want Damion Lee and Trey Lewis to see how it gnaws at me and how sick I am. Because they have to get that same feeling. They have never had it before. They have to get that feeling so they turn around and win that next game."

The Cardinals are getting it done on the other end of the floor, too. They rank second in the country in scoring defense at 57.4 points allowed per game and are fourth in opponents' field-goal percentage at 36.0.

"Our two losses were against two great teams and the games were both pretty balanced, but we came out with losses," Lee said. "For us, it is finishing and executing later on down the stretch, because in ACC play, we are going to go up against some hostile teams."

One of those is a hungry Wake Forest squad that already has won five road or neutral-site games - its most since 2008-09. The Demon Deacons (9-3) are coming off a 77-71 win at LSU on Tuesday behind Bryant Crawford's 19 points and Devin Thomas' 16.

Wake, which went 13-19 in coach Danny Manning's first season, has won seven of its last eight, with the only setback a 78-70 loss to No. 6 Xavier on Dec. 22 - a game it led by 18 in the first half.

"We were very fortunate to come away with a win (Tuesday). We have to be a little more consistent," Manning said. "When you get a win on the road against a Power 5 Conference team, you've got to take it."

The Demon Deacons are 7-0 in games decided by six points or fewer and look to make it tough on the Cardinals again. Thomas had a career-high 31 points and added 11 rebounds in an 85-76 loss to Louisville in last season's only meeting.

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