The Cardinals now will take a step up competition-wise with their first BCS-level conference foe. Louisville will be challenged tonight by an Ole Miss (7-3) squad led by talented guards Chris Warren and David Huertas.
"They're difficult because (they) play three or four different pressing defenses like we do and their guards are not going to take (regular) shots," Pitino said. "If you look at their assist total it's a low number of assists…most of their plays come off one on one. So sometimes you can't plan your defense to stop a certain play because these guys can create shots for themselves. That's why they're both averaging 20 points a game."
Warren, a 5-foot-10 point guard, averages 19.8 points, while 6-foot-5 shooting guard David Huertas is averaging 21 points per game. Huertas scored 25 against Alabama State in Ole Miss' last game, an 85-81 win.
"We're going to have to defend them off the dribble," Pitino said. "They set a lot of screens for both guards and run pick and rolls. They set great screens, very similar to the way Bob Huggins when he was there (Cincinnati). So you got to get over the (screen) and put pressure on the ball."
"The great thing about Preston is that as a coach I know when I see Andre McGee and Preston Knowles on the front of our press; in front of our zone defense; in front of our man defense – I know they're going to bring it," Pitino said. "That gives you such confidence as a coach to know those two guys are going to protect our post-players with incredible pressure on the ball. (Preston) dogs that basketball."
against Ole Miss, Minnesota.
Knowles is coming off a career-best 21 points last week against Austin Peay. Knowles sparked the Cardinals during the second half, scoring 18 of his 21 points after half time. He made 4 of 5 three's , grabbed five rebounds and made three steals against the Governor's.
"He could start but he's great to come in off the bench," Pitino said. The worst thing in the world to happen is to get Preston one or two cheap fouls and then you lose (his) intensity because generally the cheap fouls are called in the first couple minutes of play. He's invaluable to our team. He makes us go, especially when he teams up with Andre in the backcourt."
Louisville's offense, which has been averaging 80 points per game and scored more than 90 points in two of its last four games, must be ready for Ole Miss's changing defensive sets. The Rebels are allowing opponent's to score nearly 73 points per game this season.
"We've got to attack their changing defenses," said Pitino. "They will 2-2-1 half court trap; they will 1-2-2 quarter court trap; they will 1-2-2 press on the ball. They play a little zone. So they mix it up quite a bit."
Perhaps to Louisville advantage, Ole Miss won't be able to key on any one player. The Cardinals have five players averaging 7 points or more per game and had three players – center Samardo Samuels, Knowles and forward Terrence Williams – score 20 or more points against Austin Peay.
"The good thing about our basketball team is really you can't try to stop one or two players," Pitino said. "You've got to pick your poison. Preston Knowles was the (guy) last game. It could be Sosa (tomorrow). It could be T-Will; another night or Earl. So there's no one player you can key on with us."
After Thursday's game against Ole Miss, UofL will have a short turnaround for their cross-country game vs. Minnesota Saturday afternoon in Phoenix, AZ. That set-up should provide a good early test and valuable tournament-like experience for the Cardinals.
"When you play this type of schedule with so much at stake you put all your eggs into one basket," Pitino said. "It's no different than the NCAA Tournament where you play a Thursday-Saturday or a Friday-Sunday. You don't look ahead because every game is so important."
Pitino said Ole Miss is a difficult team to prepare for.
"This is a very difficult opponent to play against and prepare for," Pitino said. "You've got to put some of your really good players on their best guards and foul trouble is a concern."
In Minnesota, the Cardinals will face a team that is 9-0 on the season, the Gophers best start since 1976-77. Minnesota will have had 10 days between their last game and Saturday's game against the Cards.
"(His) teams play hard-nosed man to man and more slow down offense," Pitino said of Minnesota coach Tubby Smith.
So why did Pitino schedule two games 39 hours and 1,860 hours apart?
"I just thought it would be good for us to play in this," said Pitino. "We knew that Tubby would have a good basketball team. We didn't know how good. Obviously he's 9-0 right now and they've got an outstanding defensive team. I just thought it was another good name to get us ready for the Big East."
With Louisville trying to break five freshmen and one transfer into their playing rotation, Pitino is still trying to put the team's pieces together.
"When you have six new players the problem is that they go from never getting scouting that's very sophisticated to now it (is)," Pitino said. "They just have too much on their minds and their not used to it. When you have so many new members it's a difficult time. That's probably our biggest weakness – the ability to concentrate on scouting reports."
While his team works to improve its focus, the Cardinals won't have its normal following of fans in either Cincinnati or Phoenix.
"We only sold 900 tickets (Cinncinati) – it's not the typical Louisville contingent for some reason," Pitino said. "Whether it's the economy or the time of the game I'm not sure. But we're going to have very few people. Then we go out to a football dome (Phoenix Stadium) and BYU will probably have the most people."
Pitino expects his team will be ready for their step up in competition.
"Our players know – and I can see it in their eyes – this is an SEC-Big East challenge," Pitino said. "We lost two last night so we realize how important these games are. We understand that the competition and level of play picks up."
The Louisville coach hopes these next two games will help foster a more tight-nit team with better chemistry.
"As far as their chemistry and closeness I don't think they've arrived yet," Pitino said. "They've got to go through the road trips where 18,000 people despise the ground you walk on. That's when you get real close when you only have 13 or 14 friends in the house."