The Cardinals, 21-6 with four games remaining in the regular season, have won 7 of their last 8 games, including a 90-82 overtime win at DePaul on Saturday. Since joining the Big East, Louisville owns the best road record in league play, but will receive a stern test from the Bearcats, who won last year's contest in Cincinnati."I think we're playing good basketball, not great," Pitino said. "We have plenty of room for improvement. We need to cut down on turnovers. We did do a better job handling DePaul's pressure. I think we need to block out better and our transition defense..that's where DePaul hurt us. Our fours and fives aren't seeing the ball when they run back. It's little things that we can get better at and we will."
Since losing four of their first six Big East games, Louisville has lost just once - a one-point setback last week at home against second-ranked Syracuse. The biggest reason for Louisville's turnaround has been a healthy (relatively speaking, of course) roster that has improved with practice.
"We've just been able to practice and practicing helps you execute better," Pitino said. "We know we're doing a lot of good things, but we know we have a lot of areas for improvement. That's why I like our potential and chances. We have so many areas we can get better at right now that's a good sign. If we work on our weaknesses, I'm very bullish (on this team)."
Louisville and Cincinnati enter Thursday's rivalry renewal tied for sixth in the Big East standings. With four games remaining before the Big East Tournament, both teams are fighting for post-season positioning and March momentum.
"Every game is very important," Pitino said.
Since their highly-publicized melee against Xavier that resulted in suspensions to several key players, including senior center Yancy Gates, Cincinnati's Mick Cronin has used a four-guard lineup to turn around the Bearcats fortunes this season. UC has won four of its last five games, including a 62-57 win over Seton Hall on Feb. 18.
Cincinnati's defense frustrated Louisville in last year's matchup, a 63-54 Bearcat victory. Though Louisville made two more field goals in that contest than UC, Cronin's Bearcats out-scored the Cardinals 16-4 at the foul line, while limiting UofL to just four three-point field goals.
"They hurt us last year," Pitino admitted. "They took us out of our offense and we had a very difficult time scoring. We have traditionally not played well against Cincinnati teams. So we've got to make certain adjustments to play better."
One defensive adjustment Louisville will have to make is stopping sophomore guard Sean Kilpatrick, the Bearcats leading scorer who leads the Big East in three-pointers per game (2.67). Kilpatrick scored 18 points in last years game against Louisville, hitting 2 of 4 three's, while getting to the foul line seven times.
"He's as good a (shooter) as there is in this league," Pitino said. "They can beat you with so many other guys. They shoot it very deep on a consistent basis."
Louisville guard Russ Smith expects a 'tough' game against the Bearcats.
"They are definitely a tough team," Russ Smith said. "They had to go with the four-guard lineup and that's probably made them a better team. They are tough to guard and they shoot it at all four positions. It's definitely going to be a tough game."
Louisville forward Chane Behanan, a Cincinnati native, expects a physical, grinding affair like the Cardinals faced last week against Syracuse.
"They match up pretty well with us," said Behanan. "They've got a lot of good guards. It's going to be another grind it out, down to the wire game. Their defense is tremendous, they get up in you. We're going to feel a lot of pressure tomorrow. We should be ready for it. Coach said (in the past) they've beaten us with toughness. That's one thing we've got to match."
Blackshear Major Impact?
Can 6'5 freshman forward Wayne Blackshear be a game-changer late in the season for Louisville? Rick Pitino doesn't think so.
"He hasn't had enough practice and he's had seven months off," Pitino said. "There's nothing that I see that would make me believe (he can be a game-changer)."
Blackshear, a five-star recruit, has played in Louisville's last three games after missing the first 24 games of the season with a shoulder injury. He scored 13 points against West Virginia in his debut, then failed to score against Syracuse in six minutes of action. Blackshear had 6 points and two rebounds against DePaul.
"I'm hoping that he can do like he did at West Virginia and come in and give us some points and good minutes. But he's been inactive for seven months and he's always missing practice because he tweaks the shoulder," Pitino said. "But I do see him contributing."
Siva's Foul Trouble
Peyton Siva has faced foul trouble in Louisville's last three games. The junior has fouled out of two games this season and Rick Pitino says Siva needs to play smarter heading down the stretch for the Cardinals.
"He needs to move his feet more," Pitino said. "His fouls aren't real smart fouls. Like that third one (against Syracuse) he was just chopping at the guy. Some of his fouls aren't real intelligent. So he needs to cut down on those."
"With Peyton, he knows he's making the (mistake). He's very intelligent," Pitino said. "Peyton has very strong habits and he's disciplined. Guys like Peyton, Kyle [Kuric] they know when they're making mistakes."
Chane Behanan knows he might get booed when he returns to Cincinnati to play his hometown Bearcats. The 6'7 Behanan verbally committed to Cincinnati as a high school freshman, but ended up signing with the rival Cardinals.
"I'm looking forward to it, especially knowing I was committed to the University of Cincinnati at an early age," Behanan said. "My whole family is going to be there."
Behanan has history with 6'9 Cincinnati senior center Yancy Gates. The two played against each other in high school three or four times when Gates was a senior at Withrow and Behanan was a freshman at Aiken. Behanan's team never beat Gates back then.
"We always went head to head and I never beat him," Behanan said. "So hopefully that will change. I've just got to play team ball and let the game come to me."
Louisville already has one gunslinger in Russ Smith. Rick Pitino believes Angel Nunez might be another player who likes to shoot at every opportunity.
"We had a funny moment in practice yesterday," Pitino said. "Angel has a lot of potential and I'd love to play him but he just has no clue how to play the game of basketball at all. He's a talent who has to learn to play the game.
"Well yesterday he was trying to do his Russ impersonation of shooting every time he touched the basketball. And I said, 'Okay, now I've got Russ' son playing in practice.'
Smith, Louisville's shoot-first, ask questions later sophomore guard, retorted with the funniest line of the day.
"So in the background you hear Russ saying, 'And you (Angel Nunez) must pay attention because I'm your father,' Pitino said, conjuring images of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker…."It was the worst thing I could have possibly said, because all Russ kept saying, 'Pay attention to me son.'
"But I would love to play Angel because he does a lot of things I really like during the course of a game. It's his defense. You can't play Angel with Chane…it kills you."