Louisville, off to its best start since 1975, faces its biggest challenge Wednesday night at the KFC Yum! Center against the No. 12-ranked Hoyas, who have won eight straight since falling to Kansas narrowly in the Maui Invitational.
"It's the first Big East game," Pitino said. "It means a lot."
Though No. 4-ranked Louisville faces No. 3-ranked Kentucky in a nationally-televised New Year's Eve showdown, Pitino and his Cardinals remain solely focused on the task at hand – Georgetown. After winning 12 straight to begin the season, some still wonder how good the Cardinals really are?
"I don't think anybody sees greatness," Pitino said. "I think you see terrific grit. But this is a team that has been injured and hasn't been together. I think you want to see greatness in February if there is greatness in this team."
Louisville is coming off a 70-60 win over Western Kentucky last Friday, in which the Cards trailed the Hilltoppers by 13 in the first half – and by eight after the break. That wasn't the first time Louisville had to dig down deep and overcome an opponent this season. The Cardinals also trailed Ohio, Vanderbilt, Memphis and College of Charleston in the second half before rallying.
"From a record standpoint I'm shocked," Pitino said. "There were so many games we could have lost. We could have lost to Ohio U., Charleston, Vanderbilt, Western Kentucky, Butler….There were so many situations where we could have lost and didn't. That speaks volumes for the attitude and grit of this basketball team."
Heading into tough games against the Hoyas and Wildcats, Pitino hopes to see better play from his team than he did in their last two outings.
"We're looking for improvement," Pitino said. "We did not play good basketball the last game. We turned the ball over, they were terrible turnovers. We did not play well the Western Kentucky or Fairleigh Dickinson game, but we managed to find a way to win."While he's pleased with his team's grit and persistence, Pitino has spent the Christmas break getting back to the fundamentals.
"We're getting back to fundamentals," said Pitino. "We had a (breakdown) of fundamentals in the Western Kentucky game. We've been working very hard with Chane Behanan on his fundamentals. Peyton Siva on his fundamentals…We've worked very hard the last few days getting back to fundamentals."
Pitino relayed a conversation with Dick Vitale recently in which the ESPN commentator asked the Louisville coach if his team last year was better than his current version.
"We're probably not as good as last year but we have much more potential than last year to get a lot better," Pitino said. "Gorgui Dieng is a much better basketball player and he's going to get much better. Kevin Ware coming into the lineup is going to get much better. Rakeem Buckles is going to get a lot better. Chane Behanan doesn't understand the fundamentals, but he's going to get much better as a basketball player. And we're working very hard with Peyton Siva to get him back to his pre-injured days. Come February we're going to be a much better basketball team than we are now."
For Louisville to get better, Pitino wants to see his team get ‘a lot stronger defensively.' Pitino hasn't been pleased with his team's rotation on defense, particularly transition defense.
"What's happening is one guy is late to the party," said Pitino. "We're rotating out of weakness rather strength and leaving one person open. You do that against Georgetown and they will annihilate us with their shooting. Transition defense is where we're really, really weak. It's due to our offensive players getting frustrated with the missed shot."
Georgetown, picked to finish tenth in the Big East after losing Chris Wright, Austin Freeman and Julian Vaughn, is one of the biggest surprises in the league. The Hoyas are led by 6-10 senior center Henry Sims and 6'8 junior forward Hollis Thompson, who is one of the top three-point shooters in the Big East at 48 percent.
The Hoyas are shooting 48.7 percent from the floor this season, while holding opponents to 38.8 percent shooting. Georgetown is also hitting 37 percent from three-point range, limiting opponents to just 27 percent.
"Georgetown is probably playing as good as any Big East team," Pitino said. "When you see a field goal percentage offense, defense, three-point percentage with a 10 differential that's very strong and they have that.
"They are one of the better shooting teams I've seen come out of Georgetown in a long time. Their big gun is Hollis Thompson who is averaging 48 percent from three-point. Statistically they're a great basketball team."
Pitino expects another tough Big East conference slate, beginning tonight against the Hoyas. Syracuse, who Louisville plays twice, is ranked No. 1 in both major polls. UConn, Marquette, Pittsburgh, Georgetown and Louisville are all ranked in the Top 25. Pitino says the bottom of the league is much tougher than in the recent past, thanks to Seton Hall, off to an 11-1 start and ranked sixth in the RPI.
"It's very strong," said Pitino. "It's much tougher at the bottom than it's been. Marquette, Syracuse and Georgetown were ready early and I think the rest of us are navigating our way. You could probably pick Syracuse to win the Big East, but how do you pick them over Connecticut, Marquette, us, Georgetown or Pittsburgh? You'll know when you step on the floor."