The Wildcats (6-3) are coming off their worst defeat in 16 years, a 79-53 drubbing last Saturday at the hands of Indiana in which they missed 25-27 3's. Kentucky has dropped 2 of the last 3 games, and they'll try to rebound against a very talented U of L squad.
Still, Louisville coach Rick Pitino sounds weary about his teams' first venture outside the friendly confines of Freedom Hall this season.
"I don't feel confident at all," Pitino said after his teams' 78-54 win over Chicago State Tuesday night. "But when I was on the other side, coaching at Kentucky, I was never confident against Louisville. But I'm never confident against anyone because of my respect for everyone we play."
The Cardinals have played all six of their games at home this season, padding their record against a suspect group of foes. Not only will they face their toughest opponent in No. 22 Kentucky, but they'll have to do it in hostile Rupp Arena.
"Nothing is more difficult than a rivalry game on the road," Pitino said. "I don't think you get ready. It's baptism under fire, you just have to experience it. But I think it makes you better as a basketball team."
Senior guard Taquan Dean, Louisville's leading scorer, doesn't see a down side to facing the Wildcats on the road. Regardless of the outcome, Dean thinks the experience gained from the Cardinals first road test will pay dividends for his young teammates later down the road.
"I don't think it could hurt us, it could only make us better," Dean said. "It could give us a confidence boost going into the Big East schedule. If things don't turn out well, it's a learning experience."
Pitino agreed with Dean's assessment.
"It will get us ready to play at Villanova, at Syracuse, and at Cincinnati," Pitino said. "We were a very good road team last year, and had to win a conference championship on the road. So it will make us better. It will be a very good test for us."
Juan Palacios and David Padgett give
the Cardinals an edge in the frontcourt
Kentucky is 1-2 against ranked foes this season. In their three losses this year, Sparks' has hit just 4-14 shots from beyond the arch. In their lone win over a Top 25 opponent, Sparks hit 7-11 3's against West Virginia. And it's a virtual certainty that Pitino remembers what Sparks (25 points, 5-8 3's) did to his team last season in a 60-58 Wildcats victory.
Sparks' outside shooting ability figures to be a primary concern for Pitino. His teams' perimeter defense has been suspect in recent games. In fact, the Cardinals last two opponents – Chicago State and Akron – each made 10 3's.
"We're not ready defensively right now, but we'll play hard, and we'll play together," Pitino said. "I'm not interested in this basketball team playing its best basketball right now. I want to play great basketball in February. It's going to be a very, very tough test. There's no question about it."
The Cardinals will also have to find a way to contain the Wildcats' point guard, Rajon Rondo. Rondo leads Kentucky in scoring (15.5), rebounding (9.9), assists (5.1), and steals (2.1).
"Rajon Rondo is as good as I've seen in quite some time," Pitino said. "They're like Villanova. They've got one of the Top 5 backcourts in the country, and that's the strength of their team. Their inside players get the job done, but the strength of their team is just like Villanova."
While the Wildcats strength lies with their backcourt, the Cardinals figure to have a major advantage inside with 6-8 forward Juan Palacios and 6-11 center David Padgett.
Through six games, Palacios and Padgett have combined to average 21.7 points and 13.8 rebounds. Kentucky's four-man frontcourt rotation of Rekalin Sims, Sheray Thomas, Shagari Alleyne, and Lukasz Obrzut averages less than the Cardinals' duo in both categories.
If Louisville can exploit Kentucky's weaknesses upfront and neutralize Sparks and Rondo on the perimeter, the Cardinals might come away with an important early season road win this Saturday.
"We want to win every game, but we've got our work cut out for us," Pitino said. "We've got to improve an awful lot to play (Kentucky)."