It's hard to believe Louisville would be intimidated by Pittsburgh's No. 1 national ranking. The Cardinals went toe-to-toe with No. 1 UNC in last year's NCAA Tournament East Regional Final and began this season ranked No. 3. Louisville is also playing their best basketball of the season, having won four straight, including the past two over No. 18 Villanova and No. 13 Notre Dame.
Pitino, whose team is 3-0 in the Big East, said he's seen some big improvements from the Cardinals recently.
"I think we've picked it up and improved on the backboard," Pitino said. "We've improved our foul shooting and passing. From a basketball execution standpoint in overtime we recognized every (Notre Dame) weakness and we recognized it when it happened. We recognized the weak point of another team's offense and that was a big improvement."
Terrence Williams led Louisville with 24 points, 16 rebounds and eight assists in the Cards 87-73 overtime win over Notre Dame on Monday night. Pitino hopes Williams can give UofL an edge against Pittsburgh, though the 6-6 senior had just 11 points, 9 rebounds and 9 assists in two games vs. the Panthers last season.
"I think T-Will is the difference-maker for our basketball team," said Pitino. "I'm sure (DeJuan) Blair is for Pittsburgh. T-Will is the difference-maker in a lot of areas. He's a difference-maker on defense and passing the ball. He's a multi-talented person for us."
Pitino said Pittsburgh will force his team to play a more physical brand of basketball than did the Irish.
"This is not going to be a Notre Dame-type game where you're going to be ‘wow' on every play," Pitino said. "That just happen when you play Pitt. When we get together it's hard fought basketball games and the backboard play an important role in this (game). This is going to be a blue-collar, lunch-pail game where both teams play good defense. The team that can make shots is going to win."
To win, Pitino knows his team will have execute well on offense and make good decisions with the ball – and that includes good shot-selection.
"Pittsburgh is not going to beat themselves," Pitino said. "(We've) got to make shots against them, take good shots because they're not going to give you a lot of second looks. You've got to play not only very aggressive and physically but you've got to play very smart basketball."
Louisville split two games with Pittsburgh last season. The Cardinals beat the Panthers 75-73 Feb. 24 in Pittsburgh before falling 76-69 in overtime in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals.
"We've had great games with Pittsburgh the past few years," Pitino said. "Very hard fought games. This is probably the deepest, mostly athletically gifted Pitt team we have faced. They are deserving of their ranking and their frontcourt is as wide and as strong as any we'll face this year. Their backcourt with their floor general (Levance Fields) makes them better every time down the court. So they're an excellent basketball team."
Job No. 1 for Louisville defensively is slowing down 6'7, 265-pound center DeJuan Blair. Blair averages 14.7 points and 13 rebounds, third-best in the nation. Blair scored 20 and 16 in two games last season against Louisville while grabbing 19 rebounds.
"Blair is very long," Pitino said. "Besides the fact that he is a very good basketball player he's very long. His wingspan allows him to become the best offensive rebounder in college basketball. He's also 260 pounds. So he's very strong and plays very hard. But his wingspan makes him special."
Louisville will also have to contend with Panther forward Sam Young. At 6-6, 220, Young leads the Panthers in scoring at 18.7 points per game and has scored in double figures in every game except one this year.
"Young takes the most shots," Pitino said. "He starts out at small forward but they also move him to power forward. T-Will will guard him early on and if he goes to power forward Earl Clark will be defending him."
While Blair provides an inside presence and Young scoring-punch, senior point guard Levance Fields make the Panthers ‘go.' Fields is averaging 10.3 points and leads the Big East in assists at more than seven per contest.
"He doesn't turn it over very much," Pitino said.
And it doesn't stop with those three. Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon has a very deep and talented bench and isn't afraid to play 8-10 guys.
"They're very deep so I don't think we have an advantage there at all," said Pitino. "They're as deep as we are. They have some terrific guys coming in off the bench."
At halftime, Louisville's 1983 Final Four team will be honored. Pitino and the current Cardinals, however, won't be worried about honoring one of the best teams in school history – at least not while dealing with No. 1 Pittsburgh on the court.
"We know we have our work cut out for us," Pitino said. "There's not a phase of the game they're weak at. They're pretty strong in every area. But we've faced them before and know they're strong."
Tip-off is scheduled for 6 p.m. and the game will be televised nationally on ESPN.