Louisville's much anticipated date with Kentucky is drawing near. The Cardinals have just three more games to fine tune their act before traveling to Lexington on Jan. 2 to face the third-ranked Wildcats.
The Cardinals rebounded from back to back home losses to Charlotte and Western Carolina with impressive wins last week over Oral Roberts and Western Kentucky. Wednesday night, Rick Pitino hopes to see more improvement from his team against Louisiana Lafayette.
“The next two games are going to be very explosive offensive games,” Pitino said. “We have got to be very alert defensively. This game in particular we've got to guard some guys that are very terrific off the bounce.”
Louisville's defense has been suspect early this season but the Cardinals dominated Western Kentucky with relentless defensive pressure. Though the Hilltoppers shot 45 percent and drained 10 three-pointers, the Cardinals won 102-75 by forcing season-high 25 turnovers, out-rebounding Western Kentucky by nine and blocking five shots.
“It will be interesting to see if we can improve off our last defensive effort that after watching the film was even better than I expected,” said Pitino. “I just think it was great intensity and pressure on the basketball. We created a lot of turnovers. I think there was a great sense of urgency and I think there will be again tomorrow.”
Jennings will sit out with a suspension.
Pitino was critical of his team's transition defense after their three early season losses. A subtle change by Pitino recently from man to man to zone after opponents misses has led to improvement in that area.
“One of the major reasons we were losing was because of our transition defense,” Pitino said. “We were having a very difficult time talking and communicating. Samardo [Samuels] was late getting back and we weren't communicating and somebody would be open. So we took that type of communication out by playing zone on misses and it allows us to fan out and run to areas and we stopped the three much better in transition.”
Louisville has also been playing more man to man full court pressure in an effort to force turnovers and create easy transition baskets. The Cardinals are averaging 22 turnovers in their past three games and has scored an average of 36.5 points off turnovers the last two games.
“We've run the white-black presses here before but not like we're running it now – all out,” Pitino said. “We're doing it a lot now because we're getting a lot out of it but there will be certain teams that we won't do it.”
Pitino issued a suspension to sophomore Terrence Jennings Tuesday. The 6'10, 235-pound Jennings was scheduled to make his first career start at power forward against Louisiana Lafayette but will sit out due to a violation of team rules.
“He's got to do certain things to get back on the court because of his punishments,” Pitino said. “It is disappointing because he was going to start. He's been playing excellent basketball and we were looking for the right opponent to start both guys together. This was the right opponent and TJ was going to have to guard the highest scorer on their team. But he is improving and working harder and he was really looking forward to playing power forward in this game. So he will be very disappointed.”
Jennings had been playing well of late, averaging 10.7 points and 5.7 rebounds in Louisville's last three games. He had worked at power forward opposite Samuels in practice the past few days.
“It's taken us a long time to get them to know the plays and work together,” said Pitino. “It doesn't happen overnight. TJ has had to learn the four spot in the zone and Samardo has had to learn the four spot offensively. It just takes a little time to mesh.”
With Jennings and reserve center George Goode out, Samuels will likely be forced to play more minutes tonight. Freshman center Stephan Van Treese also could see increased action without Jennings and Goode available for action.
“I think he can play 35 minutes it's whether he can stay out of foul trouble,” Pitino said. “Every time you tell him to stay out of foul trouble he plays terrible defense. So you don't want to say that. He backs off, he doesn't block shots, he doesn't draw charges. He's playing good basketball right now because he's being aggressive.”
With a game against Radford on Saturday and the Big East opener next Wednesday against South Florida, Louisville doesn't plan to take time off for Christmas. Pitino said Louisville would practice Christmas Eve morning and at night Christmas Day.
“We just want to keep getting better and improving and we're doing that now,” Pitino said. “We're achieving what we set out to right now and we're getting better each day. We're practicing very well and one of the reasons for that is we're getting healthy. George Goode went through individual instruction today and he's probably a few days away from practicing. So we're getting healthier.”
Pitino wants to see continued improvement from his team, starting tonight against Louisiana Lafayette. Tip is scheduled for 7 p.m.
“I like the way all the guys are playing right now. I like the way Edgar is playing, I like the way Preston is playing, I think Jerry has really picked it up,” Pitino said. “I think the guys have really improved over the last week. It could be they are just getting healthy and learning the system better.”