Cards face tough task against Nova's guards

Eighth-ranked Louisville (11-1) will face a tough task Thursday night trying to defend third-ranked Villanova (9-0). The Wildcats will use a four guard lineup with only one player taller than 6-4. Yet Louisville coach Rick Pitino calls Villanova a "very scary team."

Rick Pitino finally has something that he hasn't in quite some time – a healthy team. And that's good news for the Louisville coach with third-ranked Villanova coming into Freedom Hall Thursday night.

Off-season injuries to Juan Palacios and David Padgett has slowed Louisville's progress early in the season, but the Cardinals still enter tonight's Big East opener against the Wildcats with an impressive 11-1 record and No. 8 national ranking.

"We're healthy and excited about the game," Pitino said. "We're where we hoped to be health-wise at this point, but from an experience standpoint we're certainly not where we want to be."

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  • Pitino hopes his team is ready for their biggest challenge. Villanova hasn't lost yet this season, boasting a perfect 9-0 record. They beat then No. 5 Oklahoma 85-74 last month, and thrashed a solid Temple squad 75-53 over the weekend.

    "They were a travel call away from beating the national champion and going to the Final Four last year," Pitino said. "They've got the same players and the same team back."

    That's not exactly true. The ‘Cats are without forward Curtis Sumpter, who tore his ACL for the second time during the preseason. In his absence, Villanova coach Jay Wright has gone with a four guard starting lineup, led by Allen Ray and Randy Foye, both seniors averaging 20 points per game.

    "They're probably the most difficult team in the conference to have to try and stop because they shoot it great," said Pitino. "They're scary to watch on film. They're as dominating a team as we've seen statistically in some time."

    Despite their lack of size – the Wildcats have only one starter taller than 6-4 – Villanova has been dominating this season. That's because their backcourt is second to none. They're beating teams by an average margin of 24.7 points, and average nearly 82 points. Just how important are Villanova's four guards to the teams' success? Of the 737 points the Wildcats have scored this season, 571 (79 percent) came from their guards.

    So what makes Villanova so tough to defend?

    "It's not the four guards, it's these four guards," Pitino said. "They have great experience, they put it on the floor, three of them shoot it deep, and they're explosive putting it on the floor. They're great players. It's a very difficult assignment to try and guard this team."

    Brandon Jenkins will have his
    hands full trying to slow down
    Nova's talented guards. (AP)

    And while Louisville doesn't have to concern itself with Villanova point guard Kyle Lowry's three-point shooting – he's taken just five 3's this season – they'll have their hands full trying to keep him out of the lane.

    "Lowry's not a three-point shooter like the other guys, but he's unbelievable with how quick he is getting into the lane," said Pitino. "The other guys will let it fly from five feet behind the line and make it, though."

    The Cardinals are coming off their best defensive performance of the season in a 58-43 New Years Eve win over guard-oriented Miami. Louisville held the Hurricanes to just 2-of-15 three-point shooting and 25 percent shooting overall.

    "We played much better defense, but after watching the film the best grade I would give them would be a C plus," Pitino said. "We didn't grade out real well, but it was much better than we had played before. And down the stretch we made big plays with the game on the line and that was pleasing to see."

    Recently, the Cards have struggled offensively, scoring less than 60 points in two of their past three games. Against Miami, Louisville went scoreless for more than 12 minutes to begin the second half, and shot just 35 percent for the game. They'll have to execute much better against a tough Villanova defense that has allowed only two opponents this season to score more than 60 points.

    "They do a great job of scrambling and challenging shots," Pitino said. "They play a half court trap, three quarter court trap, and because they're so quick they close out on people and challenge shots great. They switch a lot defensively, and they'll play some zone. They remind me of how Arkansas played under Nolan Richardson. They don't play like anybody else in the league."

    Pitino said some of the Cards offensive struggles against Miami could be attributed to some missed easy shots, but admitted his team doesn't have the same firepower as last years Final Four team.

    "We missed some easy shots in the Miami game, but we're not a great offensive basketball team so we're going to have our ups and downs," said Pitino. "We don't have the scoring punch without Francisco (Garcia) and Larry (O'Bannon)."

    Still, Pitino has seen constant improvement from his team the past few weeks.

    "We are improving and getting better with each day," Pitino said. "Whether we're good enough to beat Villanova or not remains to be seen."

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