Though Louisville is benefiting from an early schedule rife with home games against inferior opponents, Rick Pitino’s team appears to be rounding into form.
The ninth-ranked Cardinals will take a slight step up in competition Saturday when they host an Austin Peay team that reached the NCAA tournament last season and is currently seeking its fifth straight win.
Louisville (5-1) has played five of its first six games on its home floor, and has won those games at Freedom Hall by an average margin of 32.4 points. The one time the Cardinals ventured away from home, they got upset 68-54 by Western Kentucky on Nov. 30 in Nashville.
They stormed back with lopsided wins on three straight days at their own Marques Maybin Classic, capped by a 78-56 victory over Lamar on Monday night. Junior forward Earl Clark was named tournament MVP after totaling 39 points, 30 rebounds and 15 assists over the three games.
“I think we got a lot out of these three games because we played three different styles,” Clark said. “The young guys had a chance to get rid of nervousness. I think we’re coming together as a team.”
Playing for the third consecutive night, though, the Cardinals were by no means perfect. They missed some easy shots, went 13-for-24 at the free-throw line and committed 14 turnovers.
“Coach tells us we still need a lot of work,” Clark said. “We have to get smarter. We’re playing physical. We have to play better mentally.”
Freshman center Samardo Samuels continues to impress early in his career. The 6-foot-9 Jamaica native has scored in double figures in all six games, including a 15-point effort Monday. His 16.3 scoring average - if it lasts the season - would be the highest ever for a Louisville freshman. He’s also shooting 65.5 percent from the field and has 31 rebounds and seven blocked shots.
“Samuels is playing great for a freshman,” Pitino said. “I want to see him get above the rim and challenge shots. He challenges shots below the rim. All the freshmen are going to get better.”
Austin Peay (5-2) made the NCAA tournament in March by virtue of winning the Ohio Valley Conference - a feat which it appears capable of doing again. The Governors have won four straight, including a pair of convincing road victories to open conference play.
After winning 91-67 at Southeast Missouri State on Dec. 4, Austin Peay defeated Eastern Illinois 81-73 last Saturday. Senior forward Drake Reed scored a career-high 37 points to lead the Governors while adding eight rebounds and five assists.
Reed’s 14.4 scoring average led Austin Peay last season, and he appears to be taking his game to another level as a senior. He’s averaging 20.9 points and 7.9 rebounds while shooting 57.9 percent from the floor.
Louisville has won all five previous meetings between these schools, including four at home and an 86-64 victory in the first round of the 2003 NCAA tournament.