Despite Calipari's whining, Cards focused on hoops

<b>ESPN RIVALRY WEEK</b> You don't need a schedule to know when No. 9 Louisville (20-3, 8-1) and rival Memphis (13-10, 6-3) are about to tangle on the hardwood. You simply need to listen for Tiger's coach John Calipari's annual belly-aching about the Cardinals physical and aggressive brand of defense.

There's no love lost between these two old rivals - Louisville and Memphis.

And the same can be said of the two coaches who will patrol the sidelines tonight - Rick Pitino and John Calipari - when the Cardinals and Tigers hook up in Freedom Hall.

In fact, you don't even need a schedule to know when the two team's are about to tangle on the hardwood. You simply need to listen for Calipari's annual belly-aching about what he says is the Cardinals biggest sin - "hand-checking."

"You think Houston and UAB were bad?" Calipari, apparently angling for some officiating help, told the Memphis Commercial-Appeal. "It won't even be close. Louisville plays hard and physical, and they bump and grind on every possession. Really it's every bounce of the ball more than every possession. So if you're not ready for that, and it bothers you, it's probably a game you should stay home for."

Whine, whine..cry, cry. Same old routine from Calipari, really.

"It's the same standard line," a light-heart Pitino said Tuesday. "Things haven't changed. The officials are men of integrity and they're going to (officiate) to the best of their abilities."

"Players win or lose games," added Pitino. "not referees."

That being the case, Pitino is more concerned with his own team's performance, particularly on defense, than he is with Calipari's claims of defensive 'dirtiness.'

After reviewing the tape of his team's 77-73 road win over UAB last Saturday, Pitino chided his team's first-half defensive performance that saw the Blazers shoot a red-hot 54-percent from the floor. Most appalling to Pitino - his team's lack of proper rotation, UAB's ability to repeatedly beat his defenders off the dribble, and a failure to execute their assignments correctly.

"With the exception of the first half against UAB, we've played good defense all year," said Pitino. "But the first half against UAB was a nightmare - and it was worse on film than in person."

Still, Pitino thinks his ninth-ranked Cardinals are playing good basketball. And he's hoping they'll continue their improvement against the Tigers tonight.

"I think we're playing very good basketball," Pitino said. "But I think we still have major improvements to make. I think we're a good basketball team, but we aspire to be a great one."

Memphis, who saw their three-game win streak snapped Saturday at Houston, has struggled in the turnover department this season. The Tigers rank second-to-last in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio, and turned the ball over 26 times in their loss to the Cougars. Not a good sign heading into a game against a team that forces 19 turnovers per game.

Still, Pitino says his team isn't about to take Memphis lightly.

"They still have a lot of talent," Pitino said. "They've got one of the best young point guards in college basketball in (Darius) Washington. And they've got one of the best wing players in Rodney Carney."

And if the Cardinals don't do a better job defensively in transition than they did against UAB, Pitino said his team could be in for a long night against the athletic Tigers.

"They're very good defensively," said Pitino. "And they're great in transition. We played very poor transition defense against UAB and if we play that way (tonight) we'll have no shot against Memphis."

Tonight's game has bigger ramifictions than the rivalry aspect, according to Pitino. The Cardinals, currently in first place in the C-USA standings, are playing for their first regular-season league title. They also have a national ranking they'd like to improve, and a winning streak they'd like to see continue. And they'd like to do everything possible to increase their odds of a long stay this post-season.

"We're fighting for an (NCAA) seed, and we're fighting to improve - and improvement is the most important thing," said Pitino. "These guys are very together in what our goals are."

TIME 7:00 PM TV ESPN RADIO 840 WHAS, Sirius NEXT GAME Saturday, South Florida


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