For decades, the Cardinals and Tigers were heated rivals as members of the Missouri Valley, Metro and Conference USA. But the two programs haven't played each other since Louisville's thrilling 75-74 win in the C-USA championship game in 2005, which propelled the Cardinals to the NCAA Final Four.
Saturday the two old foes will finally meet again in a game that will be televised on CBS. It will be Memphis' first game in Louisville's new arena.
"It'll be a fun game. It's a great rivalry in Louisville history – two great traditions," Rick Pitino said.
The game could be a clash of wills, though Pitino expects a fast-paced game. Memphis ranks first in scoring (81 ppg.) in C-USA, while Louisville ranks first in the Big East in scoring defense, holding opponents to 52 point per contest.
"It's two teams that want to showcase their skills and play hard," Pitino said. "It's a nationally televised game. They're a terrific team. We think we have a good team. We've had great games with Memphis in the past – bizarre finishes. We expect another great basketball game."
Memphis, 5-3, has been inconsistent this season. The Tigers started out the season ranked in the Top 10, but have dropped out of the polls after losing to Michigan, Georgetown and Murray State. Memphis lost 76-72 at home Dec. 11 against Murray State."This game is a 50/50 game, anybody can win," Pitino said. "They're very talented. They're very good one on one players and very underrated defensively. They really get after you. They're great in the open court, they average 80 points per game."
Memphis starts four guards, led by 6'6 Will Barton, one of the nation's top players. Barton leads the Tigers in scoring (20.4) and rebounding (7.6). 6'0 Joe Jackson is the Tigers second leading scorer at 13.4 points per game. Forwards Tarik Black and Adonis Thomas and guards Chris Crawford, Wesley Withersoon and Antonio Barton all average between 6 and 9 points per game.
"They have very good athletes," said Pitino. "They are a very big steal team. They create a lot of defensive mistakes and turnovers and get out and go. They want to push it. They're very explosive one on one and that's been our weakness. We've got to do something about it this game to win."
Louisville's biggest task will be stopping Barton, who has scored 23 or more points four times this season, including 27 against Murray State in Memphis last game.
"He's very good, very long, very talented. He gets out on the break very well," Pitino said. "He's a terrific one on one basketball player."
Pitino said Louisville will have to contain Memphis' drives to the basket, something they have struggled to do against opponents this season. To match up better against the Tigers, Pitino might insert Russ Smith and Rakeem Buckles into the starting lineup, replacing Chris Smith and Chane Behanan.
"We don't put too much emphasis on starting, but Russ will probably start this game and Rak could start the game," said Pitino. "I'm not sure which way we'll go yet.
"I hope we can contain them off the bounce. If we do contain them we'll have a good chance of winning. We're trying to contain the blow-by and Russ and Peyton have looked good in practice. They'll probably start out the game tomorrow because they have two small guards as well. We have to do something about our ball containment against these guys."
Though Louisville ranks sixth nationally in field goal percentage defense and has held eight of nine opponents under 60 points, Pitino says his team has considerable room for improvement on the defensive end of the floor.
"We have not played really good defensive basketball. We've been getting beat off the dribble and guys are taking it to Gorgui too much and that's not good," Pitino said. "If you check our defensive statistics you'd think we're really defending. But we're not defending at all. We're confusing people at times. We're wearing people out at times but playing very poor defense. This is not a very good defensive basketball team yet. I don't think the guys have had a chance to work together. It's been musical chairs. Now I think we can start to get better defensively."
Louisville is aiming for their first 10-0 start since the 1996-97 season. With Memphis coming to town Saturday and a tough College of Charleston on tap next week, Pitino thinks his team will have to step up their play to extend their winning streak.
"We're not playing great basketball right now, but we're winning and surviving," Pitino said. "I think we're going to get a lot better. We've been doing enough good things to win. We've been playing good ball, making a lot of mistakes and winning. If we give a Fairleigh Dickinson or IUPUI performance against Memphis or Charleston we'll be 9-2. We have to have much better performance."