The Cardinals cruised through the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, beating Boise State and Oklahoma by an average of 24 points. Now in the regional semifinals, Louisville expects tougher competition from Tennessee, a team that held the No. 1 ranking in both national polls after handing Memphis their only loss of the season last month.
"Our guys realize we're playing against an outstanding team," Pitino said. "This is a team, like us, that has played a very difficult schedule. This team has beaten so many teams in the tournament and played dominating basketball the whole year. And they've won a lot of close games. They know how to play a variety of different ways."
bench in the NCAA's.
"Tennessee is one of the best teams in the country and they have all year," David Padgett added. "It's a challenge but we're looking forward to it."
What makes the Volunteers so tough is their depth. Bruce Pearl can match Pitino player for player tonight off the bench.
"I think Tennessee is a very deep basketball team," Pitino said. "They actively play 12 players and may be the deepest team we'll face this year. So our depth won't be too much of an advantage because they have great depth."
"The one thing that sticks out the most is their press and how well they shoot the ball," Padgett said. "They are just a very good all-around team. They have a lot of guys and they are very deep. They're good defensively and they don't do a lot wrong. It's going to be a tough test for us but we're just enjoying the opportunity."
While Louisville will look to slow down Chris Lofton, Tennessee's leading scorer at 15.5 points and one of the most dangerous three-point shooters in the NCAA, the Volunteers aren't a one-trick pony. Guard JaJuan Smith and forward Tyler Smith are also dangerous offensive weapons and are capable of putting lots of points on the score board. Smith averages 14.5 points, while Tyler Smith adds 13.7 points.
"You can't just stop one or two guys with them because they have so many weapons," Pitino said. "It puts a lot of pressure on your defense because it's multiple players that you must stop."
While Louisville will certainly have to tailor their defense to stopping Lofton and JaJuan Smith on the perimeter, the Cardinals will also give strong attention to 6-7 Tyler Smith on the wing.
"He does a lot of things – he's a great one-on-one player," Pitino said. "I remember looking at him in high school. He's improved his shooting. He was always a great athlete but now he's become a great basketball player. He's the one guy that when it's in his hands a lot of good things occur. Whether it's zone or man he's a lethal weapon for them."
Louisville will have a big job trying to stop Tennessee's explosive offense, a high-scoring unit averaging 83 points per contest. But the Cardinals must also content with the Vols full-court pressure defense and swarming defenders that force 18 turnovers per game. A big part of Tennessee's offense is generated from creating turnovers and it's important Louisville takes great care with the basketball.
Tennessee will use as many as three different types of pressure depending on the opponent and situation. "Sometimes they'll just deny the inbounds ball and drop back. Sometimes they'll stay with it and trap," Pitino said. "Score and time will dictate that."
Louisville also wants to apply the pressure back to Tennessee. The Vols have had point guard problems lately, inserting 6-6 J.P. Prince into the starting lineup for the first time all season in their NCAA Tournament opener against American University and have been prone to committing turnovers. Tennessee committed 20 turnovers against Butler with Prince committing six of those errors.
In Birmingham, Louisville applied heavy pressure in both games, generating steals and wearing down their opponents. The reason – excellent shooting.
"It (comes) down to making shots," Pitino said. "Our press looks awfully good when we shoot a high percentage because we get it on more and fatigue becomes more of a factor. It's all about making shots and at this time of the season you're going to play a great team in the Sweet 16."
Louisville shot the ball extremely well in Birmingham, connecting on 56 percent of their shots against Boise State and 59 percent against Oklahoma. The key reason the Cardinals shot so well was that they took good shots.
"I think the answer for us is (taking) good shots and it's always been that way," Pitino said. "I've seen us have some real bad shooting practices and games and it's always the result of taking bad shots."
One of the big reasons for Louisville's dominating play in the first two rounds was the play of 6-9 sophomore Earl Clark. Clark, a starter most of the season, has been coming off the bench in recent games and has played extremely well in his new-found reserve roll. Clark had 15 points, 7 rebounds and two blocks against Boise State and 14 points and five rebounds vs. Oklahoma. In the last six games, Clark is averaging a team-best 13.5 points and is shooting 61 percent from the floor.
"I think he's maturing mentally and physically," Pitino said. "I don't think Earl wanted any part of the low-post for about a year and a half and then he realized how easy it was to score from there. I think he's become a very good low-post player now to go with his perimeter skills."
If there's one part of Louisville's game that still concerns Pitino it's free throw shooting. The Cards have been brick-layers recently from the free throw line, making just 50 percent against Boise State and a woeful 33 percent, 5-15, in the 78-48 win against Oklahoma. Point guard Edgar Sosa is 0-5 in the NCAA's, while Derrick Caracter is just 1-5.
"I am concerned but not about last game," Pitino said. "I think we'll be OK. On certain nights if Derrick makes his first couple he'll get his confidence and he'll make them. The rest of the guys I think are pretty dependable."
With a trip to the regional final at stake, Louisville is looking forward to a big opportunity against Tennessee. While the Cards are happy to be one of the final 16 teams left in the NCAA Tournament, their ultimate goals are much bigger.
"I think everybody is excited – we got past last weekend and we're still playing," said Padgett. "But we want to still keep going. Our goal wasn't just to get to the Sweet 16, we want to keep going. So we're just focused on (Tennessee)."
Tip-off is scheduled for about 10:00.