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January 27, 2012

Hall players, not Willard, on Pitino's mind




He is the child of his best friend, a man he has known since he was born, a former assistant coach whom he says is like a son.

All of which, Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino insists, he won't be thinking about when the No. NR/25 Cardinals (16-5, 4-4) take on Seton Hall (15-5, 4 -4) in an important Big East Conference game Saturday in the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.

The guy in charge of the other team is Kevin Willard, who worked under Pitino at UofL for nine years before taking over at Seton Hall last season, but that friendship won't be a factor when the two clubs tip off at 8 p.m.

"Kevin is like a son to me, as a lot of the guys are," Pitino said during his regular press conference Friday afternoon. "You spend a lot of time with them in the off-season. But as you get ready for the game, if I taught them anything it's to ignore the person on the other sideline and just try everything possible to beat the heck out of that team. You're concentrating on Theodore, Pope and those guys; you don't think of the coach, you just think of the team."

That would be seniors Herb Pope and Jordan Theodore, the Hall's two star players whom the Cards must contain in order to have come away with their third league road win in four tries. Pope is averaging 16.1 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, while Thedore -- the point guard -- is averaging 16.0 and a conference-best 7.2 assists.

Because of his style of play, the 6-8 Pope will present something of a unique challenge to UofL's 6-11 center Gorgui Dieng, and to a certain extent, 6-6 forward Chane Behanan.

"Pope is good on the perimeter off the bounce, so when you're a five man and you have to guard sort of a swingman in terms of ballhandling ability, it's difficult," Pitino said. "And the first half of the season I thought Theodore was one of the best point guards in the conference, with a great assist/turnover ratio.'

In the early going, Seton Hall ranked as a major surprise in the Big East, rolling to a 15-2 overall record that included a 4-1 mark in league play and cracking the top-25. However, recently the Pirates have looked nothing like the team that carved up West Virginia (67-48) and No. 24/19 Connecticut (75-63).

Seton Hall has lost three straight -- at USF, 56-55; at Villanova, 84-76; and at home to Notre Dame, 55-42, Wednesday). Pope had his worst performance of the season against the Irish, hitting just 2-of-16 shots and fouling out. ND controled the tempo and the Pirates shot only 26.3 percent, including 2-of-14 from 3-point range, a weapon that is normally a big part of their attack.

"We have a lot of 'I' going on now," Willard said. 'I'm a good player. I scored that.' I think we've all forgotten what got us to how good we were plaing and we have to get back to that. We haven't played well the last couple of games. But you'd better have a short memory in this conference. If you don't, it makes for a long year."

Said Theodore: "It's not the same team at all that was 15-2. We have to get back to the drawing board. Guys are going to have to work harder. There's too many smiles going on here. People are saying, 'Seton Hall are pretenders.' That's not the case. We're just hitting a bad stretch. We'll turn it around against Louisville."

The game will mark the halfway point in the conference race for both teams. After Saturday, UofL will play three of its next four games at home, starting with a visit by Rutgers (11-10, 3-5) On Feb. 4.


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