The competition is about to get tougher for Louisville.
The ninth-ranked Cardinals (6-1) have yet to play a major conference opponent this season, but that will change in the next three days, beginning Thursday against Mississippi (7-3) in an SEC/Big East Invitational contest in Cincinnati.
After Thursday’s game, Louisville will then travel to Phoenix to face unbeaten Minnesota on Saturday, just the team’s third game away from home. The Cardinals lost their only other neutral-site contest Nov. 30 in Nashville, falling 68-54 to Western Kentucky.
“We wanted to schedule it, so going into (Big East play), our competition gets better and better,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “They’ve still got to go through the real road trips where 18,000 people despise the ground you walk on. That’s when you start to get close when you play those road games.”
With six new players on its 15-man roster, the Cardinals have eased into their schedule and aside from the Western Kentucky loss, have rarely been challenged. Louisville has taken its six wins by an average of 30.1 points, including Saturday’s 94-75 victory over Austin Peay - the Cardinals’ fourth straight win.
Louisville used a 17-2 run to pull away from the Governors after trailing by five with 13 minutes to play. Sophomore Preston Knowles scored 12 of his career-high 21 points during that run, and finished 8-for-11 from the field and 4-of-5 from 3-point range.
Heralded freshman forward Samardo Samuels also scored 21, and senior Terrence Williams added a season-high 20.
Samuels leads the team with 17.0 points per game and is one of the nation’s top shooters at 62.7 percent from the field.
Williams has grabbed a team-leading 8.9 rebounds per game to go along with a 10.6 scoring average while Junior Earl Clark has contributed 11.6 points and 8.1 rebounds.
Although it’s come against unheralded competition, Louisville is among the nation’s best defensive teams, holding opponents to 36.5 percent shooting from the field and 56.1 points per game.
However, Austin Peay shot 48.3 percent on Saturday, including 9-for-19 from 3-point range.
Mississippi will have coach Andy Kennedy on the bench for this game despite his arrest Thursday in Cincinnati for allegedly punching a cab driver and shouting racial slurs.
“I regret this situation,” Kennedy said in a statement released by Ole Miss. “The focus should be on the players and the game, not on me. I vehemently deny the charges levied against me, and am completely confident that I will be fully exonerated of all charges.”
Kennedy’s lawyer, Mike Allen, entered a written plea of not guilty in Hamilton County Municipal Court on Thursday.
Mississippi has alternated wins and losses in its last four games, and the Rebels rebounded from a 103-70 defeat Saturday to New Mexico by rallying for an 85-81 win Monday over Alabama State.
After reaching 20 wins in each of its first two seasons under Kennedy, Ole Miss took an early hit with season-ending knee injuries to guards Eniel Polynice and Trevor Gaskins.
In their place, junior David Huertas leads the team with 21.0 points per game. He has scored 20 points or more in all but three games, shot 53.7 percent from the field and 47.1 percent from 3-point range.
One of those 3-pointers came Monday with 18.1 seconds to seal the win for the Rebels, who trailed by five at halftime.
“We’ve got No. 9 Louisville next, and we just didn’t show up at New Mexico, so this win was a good one,” Huertas said on the school’s official Web site. “This helps everybody’s confidence, and hopefully we can keep this up.”
Sophomore guard Chris Warren, the team’s leading scorer last season, is averaging 19.8 points.
Ole Miss has not faced Louisville since sweeping a home-and-home series in 1998. The Rebels are 36-8 outside the SEC under Kennedy.