Road gets tougher for Pitino's Cards

Though Louisville didn't ring in the New Year on a positive note, falling to Kentucky 78-63, the road for Rick Pitino's Cardinals won't get any easier in the Big East, which features five of the nation's Top 10 teams.

No. 20 Louisville didn't exactly ring in the New Year on a positive note, falling to archrival Kentucky 78-63 Friday in their final non-conference tune-up.

Now, the road gets even tougher for Rick Pitino's Cardinals, who open Big East play Jan. 5 at home against Seton Hall.

Pitino's team definitely has shortcomings. That was made clear by the No. 11-ranked Wildcats, who were never really threatened by Louisville in the final 30 minutes of yesterday's contest.

Without Rakeem Buckles, who could be out six weeks with a fractured left index finger, Louisville will be at a huge disadvantage without a legitimate power forward in the Big East. Buckles' absence clearly impacted Louisville's chances against Kentucky. Without Buckles, Pitino was forced to double-team Terrence Jones, UK's 6-9 power forward. That left Josh Harrellson open around the basket, and the Wildcats 6-10 center responded with a career-game, finishing with 23 points and 14 rebounds.

Louisville couldn't matchup with Terrence Jones without Rakeem Buckles in the lineup. (AP)
"We obviously wanted to take away (Terrence) Jones in the low post and we did a good job," said Pitino. "We just didn't rotate to Harrelson in the low post. At the end of the game, we didn't switch twice when we were supposed to switch and got caught on a layup."

If Buckles is going to miss significant time during the Big East portion of Louisville's schedule, Pitino will have to magically find a solution to replace his team's best rebounder. Even with Buckles, the Cardinals were far from dominant on the glass. Without him, Louisville was pushed around on the boards by Kentucky, who owned a 36-25 rebounding advantage. It doesn't help that Pitino is forced to play Kyle Kuric out of position at power forward. It also doesn't help that 6-10 junior center Terrence Jennings refuses to mix it up and rebound.

Jennings played 28 minutes against Kentucky. He grabbed only four rebounds. Gorgui Dieng, on the other hand, had four rebounds in just 12 minutes – and he was playing on a bad ankle. Jennings is quick, he's long, and he's athletic. If Louisville is going to compete against conference foes Georgetown, UConn, Pittsburgh, Villanova and Syracuse – all ranked higher than Kentucky in the polls, Jennings has to discover his inner Dennis Rodman and start pursuing missed shots the way the former NBA star once did.

"We are a team right now giving everything we can," Pitino said. "We are a little bit limited right now. We have to play Mike Marra at the four spot, which he has never played before. We don't have a power forward in our program right now that can play this style. So we are a little bit limited, and that could hurt us in the long run. We have to figure something out right now."

Louisville also had problems with Kentucky's length. No one on Pitino's team was bothered more by Kentucky's bigger players than point guard Peyton Siva, who was frustrated by 6-6 DeAndre Liggins. Liggins made Siva ineffective, and Louisville's offensive flow was disrupted as a result. Though Siva made four assists, he also forced three turnovers and made just 2 of 9 shots.

With Siva stymied, Louisville struggled offensively because they don't have a dependable inside threat who can get easy baskets. Jennings is capable of scoring, but he gets a lot of his points beating opposing centers down the court in transition. Kuric, filling in for Buckles at power forward, scores most of his points beyond the arch. Chris Smith, Louisville's undersized small forward, isn't a post-up threat either.

"In the first half we needed ball movement and the player movement," Pitino said. "We have to stop hunting shots. That is what lost us the Drexel game and it's what got us behind [against UK]."

Louisville now enters Big East league play with an 11-2 record. All but one of those 13 games was played at the KFC Yum! Center. The Cardinals now will finish the season playing 9 of their remaining 18 Big East games on the road.

The Cardinals will ease into Big East play Wednesday against Seton Hall – coached by former assistant Kevin Willard - at the KFC Yum! Center. Seton Hall, 7-7, is the worst shooting in the Big East, and they'll play without their best shooter – Jeremy Hazell, who was shot in the arm last week.

After that, Louisville hits the road for back to back road games at South Florida and Villanova. The Bulls fell to UConn in overtime Friday – a team that beat Kentucky easily in Maui, while the Wildcats are one of five Big East teams ranked in the Top 10 this week.

"We are going to lose more games," said Pitino. "We are going to play Connecticut twice, we are going to play on the road at Notre Dame, we are going to play Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and we are going to play without a power forward.

"Our guys will give it all, we just need to stop quick shooting early in the game and use some ball movement to take better shots. Our guys play hard. I like the team a lot."

The secret is out about Louisville heading into Big East play: For Pitino's team, the sum has to be greater than the individual parts. That worked in 11 of Louisville's 13 non-conference games. Will it work equally as well in the Big East?

We're about to find out.

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