Both the Cards and Cats are off to less than impressive starts to the 2006-07 season. Louisville, coming off a disappointing NIT season, enters the game with a 5-3 record, while Kentucky is 6-3, suffering losses to UCLA, Memphis and North Carolina.
Rick Pitino's team lost in their tune up Wednesday night at home to UMass in the Billy Minardi Classic. It was the Cardinals first loss in the five year old classic honoring Pitino's late brother-in-law.
In Louisville's three losses, a clear trend has emerged: The Cards fall behind early, rally late, only to falter at the end. Asked why his team keeps getting into early first half deficits – Louisville trailed UMass by 15 at the half – Pitino had this to say:
"You guys are well educated people and I just don't understand why you can't get this," Pitino said, referring to the media. "I don't know why you won't recognize the other team's greatness. You always try to find something wrong. Neither Kentucky or Louisville are struggling. Neither one of us are great right now. We both aspire to be great at the right time, both teams are working extremely hard and both have tremendous potential."
Criticism of Pitino and his team has been building steadily all season on talk radio and on internet message boards, reaching a climax after their 72-68 loss to UMass earlier this week.
"I'm much more critical of myself than anybody else is of me and you (critics) can not get under my skin," Pitino said. "UMass out-played us and out-coached us the other night. We changed the scouting report at halftime, made a great comeback, but we were basically out of gas fighting for every little possession trying to get back into the game."
Though Kentucky has struggled early this season, they enter the game more battle tested than the Cardinals, having faced several ranked opponents, including #1 UCLA and North Carolina on the road. That experience could give the Wildcats the edge over the Cardinals today.
Louisville struggled with the shooting and defense in the loss to the Minutemen. While UMass made 7-11 first half three-pointers, most of which were wide-open looks, the Cards could only connect on six overall field goals before the break, falling behind by as many 17.
"In the UMass game, we tried to stop their post players because statistically they didn't look like they could shoot the three," Pitino said. "Unfortunately, they did and that happens in certain games."
Now, Pitino hopes his player's improving health can turn things in the right direction for his team.
"We just want to keep improving and play good basketball," Pitino said. "One of the big keys for us is to get BJ (Brandon Jenkins) and David Padgett playing up to their level. David's improvement will be more gradual, and I'm hoping BJ just busts out and has a great game. He may be a little basketball rusty, but he's physically fine."
Sophomore point guard Andre McGee returned against UMass after missing six games with an injury and will play against Kentucky. "He was a little sore, but he will play in this game," Pitino said. "He practiced (Friday) morning, but won't (Friday) afternoon)."
Pitino also plans for freshmen big men Derrick Caracter and Earl Clark to play against Kentucky. Caracter, the highly-touted 6-9, 270-pound, played just six minutes against UMass, missing all five of his free throw attempts, while Clark, a former McDonald's All-American, scored four points in the first half, but didn't see action after halftime.
"They'll play in every game," Pitino said. "When you're down that many you can't take a chance at the foul line or defensively. You need good defense because that's the only way you can come back in the game."
With Big East conference play looming, the bottom line for the Cardinals against Kentucky is relatively simple. They must do something they haven't in three years – beat the Wildcats.
"We need a win (because) we don't want to be 5-4," Pitino said. "And if we do, we'll just win our next 20 games."