Louisville, 7-1 against Top 25 teams during the regular-season over the past two seasons, faces one of the most daunting road challenges in the Big East Sunday at noon – Syracuse at the Carrier Dome. Though Louisville has proven a great road team the past few years, the Cardinals have never beaten the Orange at the Carrier Dome (0-3).
They hope to change that today.
One of the hottest teams in the league, Louisville has won six straight games, including a 78-59 knockout of Rutgers in Piscataway, NJ Wednesday night. The Cardinals, one of the best defensive teams in the nation, turned in their best offensive performance of the season against the Scarlet Knights – hitting 59 percent from the floor and almost 70 percent from the foul line.
Though Syracuse gives up 68.9 points per game this season, the Orange rank seventh nationally in three-point field goal percentage defense, limiting opponents to only 28 percent shooting from behind the arch. Typically a zone team, Pitino said the Orange are playing much more man-to-man defense this year.
"Syracuse does make you take a few more jump shots than other defenses," Pitino said. "They've got an explosive basketball team. They play great defense. They rebound well and they're a great fast break team."
"If you don't take great shots and handle the basketball correctly they can blow you out," Pitino said. "So you've got to be careful. They did it to Notre Dame and Notre Dame's a very good offensive basketball team."
Louisville holds an 8-4 series edge over Syracuse and has won three of the last four games against the Orange, including a 61-50 win last year in Freedom Hall.
Syracuse point guard Johnny Flynn leads five Orange players who average double figures at 16.1 points and six assists. 6-9 center Arinze Onuaku averages 12.5 points and 8.1 rebounds and leads the nation in field goal percentage (70 percent).
"They've got two guys that will be professional draft choices somewhere down the road," Pitino said, referring to Flynn and Onuaku. "And they've got veterans in (Eric) Devendorf and (Andy) Rautins. They're very explosive and very big physically. And they play very well at home."
Off to a 5-0 start in the Big East, the Cardinals hope to take a 6-0 league mark back home with them for a three-game home stand against USF, West Virginia and UConn.
"We're playing good basketball," Pitino said. "I couldn't tell you if we're playing any better than last January or not. Obviously by the wins you would say yes. We were a pretty good basketball team come February last year. If we get to be as good as last year I'd be tickled pink."
While the Cardinals are still trying to put the pieces together offensively, there's no denying Louisville's prowess on defense. The Cardinals lead the Big East in four defensive statistical categories, including scoring defense (62.4), field goal percentage defense (38.3), steals (8.8) and blocked shots (7.4).
"Where we are better – we're a better pressing team than we were last year," said Pitino. "We are not as good a passing team as we were last year but we're a better rebounding team. And better overall defensively – better shot blocking team."
And the Cardinals are improving on offense, evidenced by their performance against Rutgers.
"We're executing better offensively with each game," Pitino said. "We haven't seen zones in a long time so this will be interesting. Notre Dame was probably the team that played it most. Pitt played it a little bit and Rutgers tried it. It will be interesting to see how we attack it."
Terrence Williams, last week's Big East player of the week, provides the Cardinals are big edge. Williams had five dunks against Rutgers, finishing with 23 points and 11 rebounds against the Scarlet Knights. Williams had 20 points and 7 rebounds against Pittsburgh and 24 points and 16 boards vs. Notre Dame.
"He's playing as well as any player in the country," Pitino said. "He's a dominant basketball player in all phases of the game. His basketball skills are starting to match his athleticism. The best part about him is his attitude. He's the hardest worker in practice. He's a total team guy – and he's still a showman."
Tip-off is scheduled for noon and the game will be televised on WHAS-TV.