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December 24, 2013

As UK game looms, December no time to judge Cards

Rick Pitino says he never judges his University of Louisville basketball teams in December, never consults the rankings or worries about potential seeding in the NCAA Tournament.

When it comes to this season, little wonder that Pitino is holding off on any concrete conclusions about his team that would be relevant come March because the No. 6/4 Cardinals (11-1) have yet to be tested to any large degree.

With a procession of weaker teams wobbling into the KFC Yum! Center during November and December, it's difficult to get a line on these Cards, whose scoring margin of 25.5 points is the largest in the nation in Division 1. To this point, UofL has played the 24th-easiest college basketball schedule in the country, an approach that is difficult to understand considering the Cards returned the core of their national championship team and added a top-five recruiting class.

But the pillowy-soft competition will come to a screeching halt when UofL visits Rupp Arena Saturday afternoon (4 o'clock, CBS) to challenge No. 19/21 Kentucky (9-3).

A month ago, UofL failed its only semi-test of the season so far, falling to No. 24/19 North Carolina 93-84 on a neutral court in Uncasville, Conn.

But win or lose against the Wildcats Saturday, don't expect Pitino to put much stock in the result when it comes to postseason potential.

"The one thing I always hope for is come March you're an improved basketball team and you reach your potential," Pitino said. "And that's what you look at. I never really evaluate a team in December because there were teams I coached in December that were good and they stayed good."

An example of Pitino's point was the 2012 club that not only struggled through parts of December and January, they also dropped three of their last four regular-season games. Then the Cards caught fire and didn't lose again until the semifinals of the Final Four -- to eventual champion UK -- winning the Big East Tournament along the way.

"With our basketball team two years ago I knew we would never reach our potential in December or January because we were so banged up and so injured,"Pitino said. "But then we reached our potential, and last year we reached out potential.

"We want to win right now, that's our ultimate concern. But the most important thing is how we're playing come February."
Nevertheless, there is plenty for Pitino to be happy about. Louisville leads the nation in turnover margin at plus-10.1. The Cards have allowed just 60.4 points per game, 14th in the country, although any statistics at this point are skewered by their weak competition.

The deep and talented backcourt -- led by Russ Smith and Chris Jones -- is just as strong as expected. Center Mango Mathiang, although he isn't impersonating Gorgui Dieng yet, is showing steady improvement. Small forward Wayne Blackshear has shown recent signs of becoming the more aggressive player Pitino wants. Chane Behanan is back in the rotation and playing well following his suspension.

"I am very pleased with our forced turnovers and the fact that we're handling the ball so well," Pitino said. "I think I see noticeable improvement in our free-throw shooting (still low at 65.5 percent). And I think, without question, mentally we're going to get better. How much physically we can get better ... with Blackshear, how much can he improve? I know Terry (Rozier) and Chris are going to get better mentally. Physically, they're pretty much ready. And Luke (Hancock) is going to get healthier. Stephan Van Treese, pretty much what you see is what you get; I don't think he's going to improve a whole lot.

"If this team was the team that entered March, we'd probably have an early exit in the tournament. But I think you would see that with a lot of teams. Every team has their different agenda of what they want to see. With us, we want to see tremendous defensive improvement. And in the last week, I've seen improvement."

So far, the first two months of Louisville's season resembles 2006. That year, the Cards also played a woefully weak schedule and after a 73-61 loss at UK in their first road game, Pitino came under fire for not playing a tougher schedule -- or at least previously playing a game away from home -- to get his team prepared.

This will be UofL's only opportunity to get a signature non-conference win and boost its NCAA Tournament seeding resume. And such a victory is even more important than usual this season because the Cards won't have the advantage of a strong Big East schedule to bolster its RPI.

"We can learn a lot, win or lose," senior guard Russ Smith said. "It will definitely teach us about ourselves."

"It will definitely be a good test for us," Rozier said. "We live for games like this, and we're looking forward to it. You want to go out there and see how it's going to be."
UK will be the second of four straight road games for UofL, which will open its AAC season at Central Florida on Dec. 31, and travel to Rutgers on Jan. 4. When the Cards finally return to the Yum! Center on Jan. 9 to host Memphis, their 23-day absence will mark the longest stretch between home games since 1980-81.


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