With its top seven scorers back from a team that advanced to the second round of last season’s NCAA tournament, Louisville is facing very high expectations.
The sixth-ranked Cardinals get their first chance to impress Saturday at home against Hartford in the first game of the Findlay Toyota Las Vegas Invitational.
The first two games of the tournament are played at campus sites, with all eight teams playing two more games in Las Vegas on Nov. 23 and 24.
After topping Stanford in its 2007 NCAA tournament opener, Louisville led for much of a tightly contested second-round game against third-seeded Texas A&M before losing 72-69.
But that was a young Cardinals team featuring four freshmen playing prominent roles.
Louisville was tabbed as the Big East’s co-favorite, along with Georgetown, heading into this season. With guards Edgar Sosa and Jerry Smith, and forwards Earl Clark and Derrick Caracter having had a year of seasoning, coach Rick Pitino’s team feels as if it’s built to win right away.
That may be the only option this group has. Clark and Caracter are considered legitimate NBA prospects, while Sosa, Smith and junior forward Terrence Williams could play at the next level as well.
“Everyone can feel that this is the year we’ve got to do it,” Sosa said. “If it doesn’t happen this year, it might not happen for a while.”
Pitino had a feeling when his four prized freshmen arrived on campus last season that his team had the chance to be very good very soon.
Everything didn’t go according to plan early on as the Cardinals struggled to a 5-4 start, but by the time conference play began, and particularly toward the end of the Big East schedule, things began to click. Louisville won its final six regular season conference games, including road wins at Pittsburgh, Marquette and Connecticut.
“We knew we had a special class, but I think it’s better than we knew,” Pitino said. “There’s so much improvement left in those guys. … (but) can those four guys take it to the next level?”
The Cardinals featured a balanced attack offensively last season. Williams was the leading scorer at 12.4 points per game, and five others averaged at least eight points.
One of those players was senior forward Juan Palacios, who is recovering from a knee injury suffered during the team’s second practice of the season on Oct. 13. He has been a three-year starter, but is expected to be out until mid-December.
Hartford enters its first meeting with Louisville having already played three regular-season games. The Hawks opened with losses at St. Francis and Quinnipiac, the latter an 85-79 defeat in double overtime, before beating Sacred Heart 70-55 at home on Wednesday.
Coach Dan Leibovitz’s team is led by junior forward Warren McLendon, averaging 15.3 points, and senior guard Joe Jeglinski, who scores 15.0 per contest. Both scored 12 in the win over Sacred Heart.
The Hawks are 1-25 all-time against Big East opponents. They opened last season against nationally ranked Georgetown and trailed by just four with four minutes to play before falling 69-59.
Louisville plays five games in eight days to start the season, the first time the Cardinals have had such a concentrated schedule since 1960. They are slated to face 15 opponents who reached the NCAA tournament last season.
Pitino needs six wins to reach 500 for his career.