The fourth-ranked Cardinals enter Friday's 10th annual Billy Minardi Classic against Western Kentucky 11-0 – a mark that included a 69-62 comeback win Tuesday over College of Charleston.With Big East play starting next week against Georgetown and a nationally televised showdown against rival Kentucky on New Year's eve looming around the corner, Friday's game against the struggling Hilltoppers could prove a trap game for the Cardinals.
Or maybe not.
"We don't believe in trap games," Rick Pitino said. "Trap games are when you think you're a great basketball team, you're full of yourself and looking down the road. The one thing that's been good about this basketball team since we rebranded ourselves and put Louisville first we haven't played that way. We fully understand that anybody can beat us on a given night."
Western Kentucky, 4-8, lost to Furman 76-63 in Bowling Green earlier this week. The Hilltoppers start three freshmen, including leading scorer and rebounder Derrick Gordon, a 6'2 guard from New Jersey.
"If we get beat it's not going to be because it's a trap game and we're looking ahead," Pitino said. "We recruit players who are unselfish and play for the name on the front of the jersey. We're very excited about the young people we have coming in down the road. We think they have great potential."
Things have been going well for Pitino's program on and off the court this season. Fourteen of Pitino's 17 players earned GPA's of 3.0 or better during the fall semester. The Cardinals also landed a commitment this week from Anton Gill, one of the top 2013 guards nationally.
With unlimited practice time during Christmas break, Pitino is focusing considerable attention on two areas – Louisville's zone offense and three-point defense. The Cardinals struggled to deal effectively against College of Charleston's zone and didn't defend the three well in the first half against the Cougars.
"I think Christmas is my favorite time of year because it gives us a chance to work on the things we need to get better without the academic pressures," said Pitino. "Things are going good for us in different areas – recruiting and academically.
"We won't deal with this game any different than Georgetown or Kentucky. We'll try to take away their strengths and exploit their weaknesses. And we'll try to figure out what they're going to do against us. We knew Charleston would zone us."
Pitino suspects Western Kentucky will do likewise.
"We're working very hard on our zone offense," Pitino said. "We're seeing more zones now. We know Western and Georgetown will play some (zone). The Big East is a big zone league. Every team from Syracuse to Pittsburgh plays zone. It's something we've been trying to focus in on."
Though Louisville ranks sixth-nationally in field goal defense, the Cardinals perimeter defense has been susceptible against good shooting teams, including College of Charleston, which made 12 of 23 threes. Ohio, Vanderbilt and IUPUI all made at least eight three-pointers against Louisville.
"We're leaving our feet too early and closing out poorly but we're working hard on that too," said Pitino. "When you watch the film they (College Charleston) made some really tough threes. There were about five of those threes that we defended very well and they made tough shots. They're a very good pass and shoot team. They're very similar to Ohio and we're very lucky to come away with a win. Playing that game made us a better basketball team."
Besides working on their shortcomings, the Cardinals are also getting deeper heading into Big East play. Junior forward Rakeem Buckles missed the end of last season with an ACL injury, but has played in three of the last four games, including a 12 point, 6 rebound outing against Memphis. Kevin Ware, a freshman guard, is the latest addition to Pitino's roster.
"When you substitute and don't lose something then you have a terrific basketball team. That's what Rak does. Whether he starts or Chane does we don't lose anything when we substitute," Pitino said.
"Obviously when Gorgui leaves the game we lose something. I think we're going to get to the point with Kevin Ware when Peyton Siva comes out of the game we're not going to lose anything. We're bringing Kevin Ware into our system and trying to teach him a lot different things. When Chris (Smith) comes out and Russ (Smith) goes into the game we don't lose anything.
"When there's no drop off you have a very good basketball team. That's what Syracuse has right now -they don't lose anything when substituting."