Rick Pitino would like to think Louisville can get by without do-everything forward Terrence Williams.
It doesn’t mean Pitino wants to find out on Sunday when the third-ranked Cardinals (2-0) play Western Kentucky (2-2) in Nashville, Tenn.
“I’m not that brave,” he said. “There’s a reason we almost lost (exhibitions) to Northern Kentucky and Georgetown (College).”
Williams missed both games while recovering from a knee injury suffered during the first week of practice in October. While he managed to recover in time to play well during the season-opening Billy Minardi Classic - picking up MVP honors for the two-day tournament after averaging seven points, nine rebounds and five assists in two easy wins - he’s still not 100 percent.
Pitino held Williams out of practice for three days this week as a precaution, but thinks Williams will be able to play against the Hilltoppers.
“When you have this injury, you feel great, you come back and play and then the pain comes in from the surgery,” Pitino said. “You have to get over that hump to come back full-time.”
Pitino said some of Williams’ problems may have been due to his own competitiveness.
“He tried to do too much too soon,” Pitino said. “He’ll be fine. It’s just going to take a little bit of time, a little bit of TLC.”
The TLC, however, can wait until after the Cardinals play the quickly improving Hilltoppers. Western Kentucky is coming off an impressive win over Southern Illinois on Wednesday, hardly looking like the team that was blitzed at Murray State just days earlier.
“We’re still evolving,” said first-year Western Kentucky coach Ken McDonald. “We have to handle what Louisville is going to throw at us. They’re gonna throw a lot at us and get us out of our comfort zone and how we handle it will dictate the game and whether we’re in the game and we have to understand that.”
McDonald used to sneak into practices at Providence when Pitino was coaching the Friars in the mid-1980s. Watching Pitino work helped McDonald catch the coaching bug, though McDonald knows it’ll take a little more than Xs and Os to keep up with the Cardinals.
“They’re a top-two team in the country and we have to respect that,” McDonald said. “We need to get better, even at the little things.”
The game is the first of a four-year renewal of one of the area’s more historic rivalries. Western Kentucky actually leads the all-time series 38-33, though Louisville won the last meeting 93-63 five years ago.
“Western Kentucky has great tradition and anytime you play a school with great tradition, it’s a terrific rivalry,” Pitino said. “I don’t think there’s any game in the country that matches up to (Kentucky vs. Louisville) but it’s a very good game for us. We’ve got great respect for Western and for what they do on the court.”
What the Hilltoppers will have to do to knock off a Top Five team for the first time in seven years is handle Louisville’s suffocating full-court pressure. The Cardinals forced 41 turnovers in their first two games and limited opponents to just 32 percent shooting from the field.
“It depends on how mature we are, how ready we are,” said guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez.
Pitino is looking for a bit of maturity from his players too, particularly freshman forward Terrence Jennings, who sat out both games last weekend. Watching while the Cardinals dominated was tough for Jennings, who has admittedly struggled to pick up Louisville’s intricate offense.
“I’m not completely lost, it’s sometimes I get a little mixed up on things,” Jennings said. “(But) I expect to get some minutes tomorrow. I don’t know how many, but whatever minutes I do get, I’m going to bring it.”