Jay Wright's 14-1 Wildcats are 3-0 in the Big East after dispatching previously unbeaten Cincinnati, 72-61, Sunday.
Though Louisville is ranked 18th nationally this week and own a 2-0 Big East record after wins against Seton Hall and USF, Pitino still isn't sure whether his team has what it takes to challenge Villanova, and others, for the league crown.
"I really don't know [if we can challenge for the league championship]," Pitino said. "I'm really pleased with the effort of our basketball team. We don't have the experience and the overall talent some of the other teams have. That doesn't mean we can't be there. This team is a guess."
Pitino doesn't have a ready-made star who can consistently take over the game. Instead, his team has relied on its balance and depth this season, rather than one or two go-to guys. That depth took a hit recently with injuries to power forward Rakeem Buckles, point guard Elisha Justice and small forward Mike Marra. While Buckles won't play Wednesday night against Villanova, Pitino said Justice and Marra are ready for action.
"With our basketball team, we take what the defense gives us and depth is our strength," Pitino said. "We had a bad stretch but we've got our depth back again. Bullet [Justice] now is healthy once again. Mike Marra is healthy once again. [Stephan] Van Treese has stepped in for Rock. George [Goode] has stepped in. We just got back together and we start a different campaign with different players."
With Buckles sidelined, seldom-used forward Stephan Van Treese has stepped up his play in Big East action. The 6-9 sophomore grabbed 10 rebounds against Seton Hall, and led Louisville with 12 points and 14 boards in an 86-77 win at South Florida on Sunday.
"It's diminishing returns with him," Pitino said. "If you expect too much you'll get disappointed. The good thing about Stephan Van Treese is he doesn't try to do things he's not capable of doing. He doesn't go out there and try to wow you with his jump shot and that's why he's performing well. He's a relentless rebounder, he sets great screens, he moves without the basketball and he runs the floor very well."
Pitino said Van Treese will be challenged by Villanova's quickness and defensive approach.
"This will be a tough game for Stephan," said Pitino. "It will be interesting to see how he performs because this is a team that gets in your face, denies and traps quite a bit, and passing becomes a premium."
Pitino also had good things to say about junior center Terrence Jennings, who sparked Louisville with 10 points off the bench against USF. Jennings, who started early this season, was benched after a loss to Drexel last month due to a lack of rebounding production.
"His attitude has been awesome," Pitino said. "He works his tail off in practice every day. As a coach, I'm real appreciative of the effort he gives though he doesn't have the glory of starting. T.J. is not one to hang his head. He's playing hard right now."
Pitino said he took away several positives from his team's first Big East road win at USF, including Louisville's ball security, the Cardinals had only seven turnovers, free throw shooting (23 of 26) and offensive rebounding.
Though Louisville had a road tune-up against USF, they'll face a much sterner challenge against Villanova. The Wildcats are led by Malik Wayans, Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes, a strong perimeter trio that averages nearly 45 points per contest. Stokes, a dangerous perimeter shooter, leads the Big East with 48 three-pointers.
"They are a great shooting team," Pitino said. "They cause a lot of problems for you defensively. They're very physical. They are every bit as good as they were last year. They're one of a handful of teams that could win the Big East this year."
Villanova will challenge Louisville's high-scoring offense with a defense that leads the Big East in three-point shooting defense (.271), and is second in field goal defense (.374).
"This game is a matter of offensively can we handle all their traps? Can we handle the way they front the post? Can we handle their deny defense?" Pitino said. "So offensive aggressiveness is going to be a major factor. They took Cincinnati out of everything they wanted to do."
On the injury front, Pitino said that junior forward Jared Swopshire, who has a groin injury, is out for the season and will consult with doctors while in Philadelphia . "He's definitely out for the season," Pitino said. "In all likelihood he's going to need surgery."