Louisville must face a red-hot, highly ranked team to open Big East play, and this might not even be the fourth-ranked Cardinals’ biggest challenge of the week.
Taking a perfect record into a cross-state showdown against their archrival won’t be easy because they would first have to knock off No. 12 Georgetown on Wednesday night.
“One thing I’ve learned to do with my age, I really don’t look ahead,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said.
The former Kentucky coach certainly isn’t letting his team look ahead to Saturday’s trip to Lexington for a matchup with the third-ranked Wildcats.
“We haven’t talked about Kentucky one time yet, and we’re going to keep it like that until we come out with a W tomorrow,” senior guard Chris Smith said Tuesday.
The Cardinals (12-0) could match the best start in school history Wednesday and they’re one of six Division I teams yet to lose, but it’s hard to say they are playing better than the Hoyas (10-1).
Georgetown has won eight in a row - two over ranked teams - and has won its last four by an average of 22.8 points. Louisville, meanwhile, has needed to rally to win its last three games - none by more than 10 points - and the last two were against College of Charleston and sub-.500 Western Kentucky.
“We haven’t been playing good basketball the last three games,” Pitino said. “We are giving unbelievable effort to win. There have been four games where we should have gone down, but the effort is so great that we are winning, but we are not executing at the defensive end.
“… Now we have to get really good execution defensively to get ready for Georgetown and to win.”
Further displaying the difference between the teams of late are their recent efforts against Memphis. The Cardinals fell behind in the second half before pulling out a 95-87 victory over the previously ranked Tigers on Dec. 17. The Hoyas had a much easier time five days later, never trailing in the second half and leading by as many as 20 in a 70-59 victory - only the second time all season Memphis was held below 70 points.
“That’s the type of game we’re going to be playing when we get into the Big East so this will boost our confidence,” said senior guard Jason Clark, who had 18 points and leads the Hoyas with 15.7 per game.
This contest could be a defensive struggle considering Louisville and Georgetown rank 1-2 in the Big East in points allowed. Louisville is holding teams to 36.3 percent from the field while Georgetown’s opponents are at 38.8.
Hollis Thompson has keyed the Hoyas offense lately, averaging 16.2 points and 7.0 boards over the past six games, as Georgetown has posted a fifth straight 10-1 start.
“We just want to understand where we’re flawed, how to fix those flaws and get better,” coach John Thompson III said.
The matchup in the middle could be a key factor Wednesday.
Hoyas senior center Henry Sims has averaged 13.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists over the last seven games.
Cardinals center Gorgui Dieng has really started to emerge, posting five consecutive double-doubles while averaging 14.6 points and 13.0 boards. He’s blocked 14 shots over the past three games.
“I guarantee you that any big man I face, I’m quicker than them,” Dieng said, “and I’m faster than them.”
Fellow sophomore Russ Smith also has been playing a key role off the bench, averaging 19.7 points over the past three games while collecting 14 steals.
“I guess it’s just good luck when I come in,” he said.
Teammate Peyton Siva hopes his luck will change. He’s totaled five points on 2-of-12 shooting in the past two games with 10 turnovers. He’s among the Big East leaders in turnovers (3.7 per game) and assists (6.4).
Siva had eight turnovers in these teams’ only matchup last season as Louisville lost 62-59 at Georgetown on Jan. 31.