While it appeared Louisville was starting to get healthy against Ohio with the return of Peyton Siva, the Cardinals lost reserve forward Stephen Van Treese to a knee injury suffered in practice Saturday morning.
Pitino believes Siva's return will have positive results for his improving team. The junior point guard was clearly rusty against Ohio, but his gutty performance keyed Louisville's late rally against the Bobcats."We're in survival mode until the cavalry arrives to help us, but we can't lose," Pitino said. "Now we're going to play against the best team so far, Long Beach State with tremendous athletes.
Siva could be the key against a veteran Long Beach State squad which starts four seniors and a junior from a team that finished last season 22-12 and already owns a Big East road upset over Pittsburgh this season.
Long Beach State is led by senior point guard Casper Ware, who like Siva, finds himself on the John Wooden preseason Top 50 watchlist. Ware leads LBSU in scoring at 18.8 points per game and four assists.
"I just think he's really rusty," Pitino said of Siva. "He hasn't shot the ball, he hasn't moved. It's kind of amazing that he can play that hard without playing, which is a great tribute to the guts that young man has. He's missed 25 practices."
A high-scoring outfit, Long Beach State enters tonight's contest averaging 74 points per game, including an 86 point effort in their win against defensive-minded Pittsburgh. Long Beach State will challenge a tough Louisville defense that hasn't allowed more than 54 points all season and has held seven consecutive home opponents under 60 points dating back to last season.
"They are very hard to score against," said Ohio coach John Groce. "I thought they were very good defensively. It was hard to get good looks out there."
With an injury-depleted roster, defense has been Louisville's calling card early this season.
The Cardinals limited Arkansas State to just 27 points in a 54-27 win last week, and have held four straight opponents below 55 points for the first time since 1946. Louisville has held three opponents below 30 percent shooting this season, including Arkansas State to only .244 percent, the fifth-lowest by a UofL opponent in 40 years. Louisville ranks 12th nationally in field goal percentage defense.
"What has made us survive is our defense," Pitino said. "Our defense has been really incredible."
Long Beach State, which shoots 47 percent from the floor, will provide a serious test for Louisville's defense. The big challenge for Louisville will be keeping Long Beach State's athletic frontcourt off the boards – and the fast break.
"They are real long, athletic and aggressive on the board," Siva said. "We've got to work on keeping them off the offensive glass."