The Minutemen, led by second year coach Travis Ford, who played for Rick Pitino at Kentucky, are off to their best start (8-2) since their Final Four season in 1995-96. UMass is coming off a 79-66 win over Central Connecticut State and are led by 6-9 center Rashuan Freeman and 6-8 forward Stephane Lasme.
Freeman, one of the top players in the Atlantic 10, and Lasme, provide UMass a strong inside presence. Freeman leads the team with 17.9 points per game, while the wiry Lasme averages a team-leading 9.7 rebounds.
"They're a very gifted basketball team that could compete very well in the Big East," Pitino said. "This is another great game for us to get ready for the Big East. Physically, they have great size and outstanding talent. They've got great shot blocking and inside scoring. It'll be a big time challenge for us."
Juan Palacios, the MVP of the NABC Classic and Terrence Williams, an all-tournament selection, led the Cardinals to wins over Ohio, St. Joseph's and Bellarmine over the weekend. Pitino also got solid play from freshman point guard Edgar Sosa, who scored a career-high 22 points against the Bobcats and Will Scott, a sophomore walk-on transfer from Cornell, who scored 19 points against the Red Hawks.
The Cardinals could get sophomore point guard Andre McGee back tonight against UMass. McGee missed the past six games after undergoing surgery to repair torn cartilage in his knee. He scored 16 points in Louisville's season opening win over Northwestern State.
"He's going to practice today for the first time," Pitino said Tuesday. "He's just been shooting and dribbling with the trainer. If he does more today (in practice), he'll play some tomorrow."
performance from Juan Palacios
One thing Pitino would like to see tonight is better free throw shooting from his team. Through seven games, the Cardinals have struggled at the free throw line, shooting better than 70 percent from foul line just once. Fortunately, for the Cardinals, UMass has made just 59 percent of their free throws this season.
"As I broke down the Bellarmine tape, we would look much better if we would shoot free throws better," Pitino said. "We're not turning the ball over and we're moving the basketball. We're doing some really good things offensively and defensively, we're just shooting ourselves in the foot by shooting poorly from the free throw line."
Pitino also hopes Williams starts finding the basket with both his three-point and midrange shots. The 6-5 sophomore has made just 16 percent of his three-pointers this season and is shooting only 32 percent overall, though he is second on the team in rebounding and first in assists.
"I actually think T-Will is playing the best. His assist-to-turnover ratio and rebounding have been great," Pitino said. "It's not his three-point shot that's the problem – he may take one or two per game that he should not take. His problem is the midrange shots when he's going to the basket. He's got to make those 8-10 foot shots because he has the ability to get into the lane."
With a tough game tonight against UMass in the fifth annual Billy Minardi Classic, Pitino hopes his team will start to put things together before the Wildcats arrive this weekend. "We're a good young team with a lot of potential," said Pitino. "We have to play two great games to come away with two great victories."