Cajuns Pitino's toughest first-round opponent

Louisville (29-4) opens the NCAA Tournament against Sun Belt champion Louisiana-Lafayette (20-10) tonight at 7:10 PM at the Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

Rick Pitino is impressed with fourth-ranked Louisville's (29-4) first-round NCAA opponent. In fact, the Cardinals' veteran coach believes that the Louisiana-Lafayette Rajun' Cajuns, champions of the Sun Belt conference, rate as the toughest opening-round opponent he's ever had to prepare.

Winners of 14 of their last 17 games, including a three-game sweep of the Sun Belt tournament last week in Denton, TX, the Cajuns are athletic, and experienced.

"Athletically, you always talk about what makes an outstanding team," Pitino said. "If you have talent in the junior and senior classes, you've got a terrific team. And that's exactly what they have."

Besides their experience and athleticism, first-year Louisiana-Lafayette coach Robert Lee's squad is a balanced outfit on offense. The Cajuns are led in scoring by 6-6 Tiras Wade, a transfer from East Tennessee State who averaged 27 points per game during LA-Lafayette's run to the Sun Belt tourney title. Besides Wade, the Cajuns boast three other starters who average double figures.

"They don't have just one guy that you have to concern yourself with," said Pitino. "They're point guard is terrific (Florida transfer Orien Green), and he's 6-5. They're center (Chris Cameron) is a big-time threat at 6-11, 270, and they've got scoring at the wings (Dwayne Mitchell, and Brian Hamilton). So this is the toughest first-round match-up I've ever had as a coach. But I'd probably rather have it that way because we play better against better talent anyway."

"I think they're a better team than Xavier in terms of talent in their junior/senior classes," Pitino added. "Although, Xavier had three seniors. But they're different. They're an awesome rebounding team, and they're very quick."

To stop Lee's multitude of scorers, Pitino will rely on a defense that has held opponents to less than 38 percent shooting on the year - a figure that ranks third best nationally, and represents the best effort for any U of L team in the last 44 years.

"We're not a great man team, and we're not a great zone team," Pitino said. "But we're a great changing defensive team. The more we change the more effective our defense becomes."

But Louisville might be without one of its top defenders Friday night against Cajuns. Otis George, the Cardinals third-leading rebounder this season, sufferred a stress-fracture to the third metatarsal in his right foot last week in Memphis. George, who missed the C-USA final against Memphis, hasn't practiced, and wore a protective boot on his foot this week. Though his status remains unclear for this evenings game, Pitino said Wednesday he was hopeful George could play.

6-8 U of L freshman forward Juan Palacios
hopes to continue rebounding like he did
last week at the C-USA tournament in

"This has been a fascinating season," Pitino said. "Our injury situation has been well documented how bad it's been. But we've still been able to overcome it and win."

One of the more interesting individual match-up between the two teams starting centers - Louisville's 6-7 Ellis Myles against the 6-11 Cameron. And while the Cajuns' center has both a size and weight advantage over Myles, Cameron, a native Australian, prefers to do most of his work facing the basket.

"He's un-orthodox but he steps away from the basket and he's a big-time three-point threat," said Pitino. "We can't have Ellis Myles help in the lane like he's been helping our defense because he's got to go out and pressure (Cameron). That's what opens it up so much for their drives."

Another key for Louisville will be handling Louisiana-Lafayette's pressure defense effectively. The Cajuns were opportunistic during the run to the Sun Belt title, forcing nearly 17 turnovers in victories over Middle Tennessee, Florida International, and Denver.

"Like UAB, they're one of the best steals teams in the country," Pitino said. "They're lightning quick and they go after the basketball like UAB goes after it."

And don't be surprised to see a quick pace. Both teams like to get up and down the court, and the two opposing coaches have talked this week as though they aren't afraid to get involved in an old fashioned shootout.

"We're going to get our shots and they're going to get theirs," added Pitino. "We can't turn it over against a team that forces 17 turnovers per game. What makes me the most nervous about this basketball team besides their talent is that I don't like to go against talent in the junior and senior class because they know what to do and not to do.

Expecting a two-seed but getting a four-seed after winning both the C-USA regular-season and tournament titles, it should also be interesting to see if the Cardinals have put that disappointment behind them.

"It's behind us now, and too much time has been spent talking about things that you can't do anything about," he said. "We're not even thinking about that anymore. It's long gone and we're just focused on the matter at hand."

At hand is a tough match-up with an experienced, and athletic team that is making a second consecutive appearance in the NCAA's.

"They're a hell of a basketball team," Pitino said. "We've got ourselves a very difficult first-round match-up."

"But our atmosphere will be at ease," added Pitino. "We're very confident, we're very hungry, and we're very respectful of our opponent. We know who we are."

Any thinking ahead on Pitino's part this week towards a potential second-round match-up with last year's national runner-up Georgia Tech?

"No," said Pitino. "If you've watched what I have on film you wouldn't plan ahead either. We are bringing two suits – but we're not planning ahead."

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