The Big East was supposed to be down this season. But as Rick Pitino pointed out Tuesday, the Big East once again is the nation's best basketball league. In other words, low-RPI teams like Seton Hall are few and far between in a league that boasts eight Top 25 RPI teams.
"I've never seen this before in my coaching career for a conference," Pitino said. "You have [RPI #] 1, 3, 5, 7, 12, 13, 14, 18…..and us 47. It's mind-boggling to look at this in what we all thought would be a rebuilding year."
That's why it's important for Pitino's team to bounce back quickly from Friday's78-63 loss against rival Kentucky and get off to a good start in Big East play against the Pirates and USF, Sundays opponent which ranks No. 105 in the RPI.
"I told our team it's more devastating for you to lose to [Seton Hall or South Florida] than it would be [the higher-ranked teams]," Pitino said. "Our strength of strength of schedule will only get stronger and stronger. Seton Hall could easily beat us, they have the talent to do so…You could go from 40-something [in the RPI] to 60-something with a home loss.
Unfortunately, Pitino's team won't be at full strength as league play begins. Rakeem Buckles remains sidelined with a hand injury, and backup point guard Elisha Justice is nursing a leg injury that could keep him out another week after briefly returning from a concussion against Kentucky.
Buckles' injury – a fractured left index finger that required surgery and will keep the 6-8 sophomore out of the lineup up to six weeks - was a major blow for Louisville's chances against Kentucky. Injured in practice the day before the game, Louisville didn't have time to adjust for his absence. Things were so out of whack for the Cardinals that Pitino was forced to play shooting guard Mike Marra at power forward against 6-9 Terrence Jones, not exactly a winning formula.
"I feel terrible for our guys about that game," Pitino said. "They didn't take one day off. They practiced double-sessions Christmas Eve, double-sessions throughout the whole period. And then right before the game started suddenly there's no [Buckles], no Bullet, and Gorgi [Dieng] steps on a ball during warmups and all their plans [were dashed]….
"We put all our plans into stopping Terrence Jones …..We were not prepared in practice to play Stephen Van Treese. We were expecting Rock to play. We weren't expecting Mike Marra to play, but I told him he had to. So we were caught in a very difficult situation. I feel bad for our guys."
Without Buckles, Pitino was forced to use a lineup that couldn't matchup with the Wildcats. Pitino now hopes that sophomore Stephen Van Treese will step up his game, and give the Cardinals quality minutes at power forward.
"Small wasn't the problem in the Kentucky game. What we've been relying on is depth and our depth was taken away [by injuries against Kentucky]," Pitino said. "We had no Bullet. No Rock. No Swop. We've been able to play small because of our depth. We've been able to substitute freely and get guys in fresh and all of a sudden we weren't able to do that.
"Now, we're still going to do it, but Van Treese has to step up and play and Russ Smith has to step up and play. Peyton Siva can't play 33 minutes like he did the other night. The problem we have now is how to get guys breaks?"
Though Buckles and Justice remain sidelined, Pitino will have Marra and Gorgui Dieng back in the lineup against Seton Hall.
"We've had a lot of injuries here and I think we've done a good job not paying attention to them," said Pitino. "We've ignored them [injuries] in the past and asked other people to step up and they did. Now we've got to do it again. We've got to ask Stephen Van Treese to step up. George Goode to step up. Russ Smith to step up. And we'll be fine."
The good news for Louisville is that Seton Hall also is hurting. Top scorer Jeremy Hazell won't play, and that's a significant loss for the Pirates, who have lost three of their last four games. Hazell, of course, has been tough on Louisville in the past, including in the Pirates win last season in East Orange.
Without Hazell, who led Seton Hall in scoring at 24 points per game before his injury, Willard will rely on forwards Jeff Robinson (12.1) and Herb Pope (8.6), and guard Jordan Theodore (12.0). The Pirates split their first two Big East games, falling to Cincinnati and beating South Florida.
"He's got to get through some very difficult times," Pitino said.
Date: Wednesday, Jan. 5
Time: 7:02 p.m. ET
TV: ESPNU will televise the game, with Mark Brown (play-by-play) and LaPhonso Ellis (color) calling the action.
Radio: WKRD (790 AM, 101.7 FM) will broadcast the game on radio, with Paul Rogers (play-by-play) and Bob Valvano (color) calling the action.
Series History: Louisville leads the all-time series, 8-5 (5-1 in Louisville, 3-4 in New Jersey).
Next U of L Game: Jan. 9 at USF, Tampa, Fla., Noon ET (BIG EAST Network/WHAS-TV in Louisville)