Louisville hardly looked like one of the favorites to win the national title with the way it opened the season. Lucky for the Cardinals, no champion is crowned in November.
After coming out a little flat in their season opener, the third-ranked Cardinals look for a stronger effort on Sunday when they play South Alabama in the championship game of the Billy Minardi Classic at Freedom Hall.
Coming off a run to the regional finals of the NCAA Tournament last season, Louisville opened 2008-09 with its highest preseason ranking since it was No. 2 in 1987. The Cardinals, though, didn’t look like an elite team in the season’s opening minutes, missing 17 of their first 20 shots Saturday in the first game of the Minardi Classic against Morehead State. Louisville did recover to shoot 61.9 percent (26-for-42) from the field the rest of the way en route to a 79-41 victory.
“We opened the first half with opening night jitters,” Cardinals coach Rick Pitino said. “When we passed the ball, we looked good.”
Highly touted freshman Samardo Samuels came out tight in his collegiate debut, as his first shot was blocked and his second was a brick. He eventually settled down, and finished with 18 points - 12 of them coming on dunks.
“I wasn’t used to the crowd, I wasn’t used to a lot of things,” said the 6-foot-8, 255-pound Samuels, a McDonald’s All-American and last season’s high school player of the year. “The second half I settled down. I didn’t know it would come this fast. It seemed like I was in high school yesterday.”
He added five rebounds and stayed out of foul trouble - one of Pitino’s major concerns.
“He did OK,” Pitino said of Samuels. “He’s gotten about 20 percent better above the rim. He’s still looking for the foul below the rim. He’s got to finish with a power move or a power dunk.”
Although the Cardinals struggled to find their shot, their defense completely shut down the Eagles, holding them to 29.0 percent (18 of 62) shooting from the floor.
Meanwhile, South Alabama (2-1) shot 53.7 percent from the floor and led by as many as 39 points in Saturday’s 93-64 win over Florida A&M.
Domonic Tilford played for the first time this season after serving a two-game suspension for violating a team rule, and led the Jaguars with 17 points. The senior guard was the team’s second-leading scorer in 2007-08, averaging 12.5 points.
“I think this was a very important game for us because it’s the first time this year we’ve had our whole team together,” South Alabama coach Ronnie Arrow told the team’s official Web site. “Hopefully this was the first step in showing what this team can do.”
The Jaguars, the two-time defending Sun Belt Conference regular season champions, have lost two games against ranked opponents since a 66-62 win over No. 25 Houston on Dec. 17, 2005.
Louisville is 9-1 all-time versus South Alabama, which it hasn’t faced since the Cardinals’ 90-79 victory on Dec. 7, 2002.