By GARY GRAVES
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville coach Rick Pitino isn’t worried about a letdown after the big victory over Kentucky.
That’s because the No. 4 Cardinals (12-1) have something to prove in today’s Big East opener against Providence (8-4).
Louisville’s 90-59 loss at Providence last January was the Cardinals’ worst of the season. Pitino credits the Friars for playing well in that game while adding that nothing went right for Louisville in an “embarrassing” loss.
On Saturday, Louisville beat Kentucky 80-77. Now the Cardinals must put state rivalries aside and shift their attention to the most important part of the season — the 18-game conference schedule.
“We’re thrilled because we played a great first half but disappointed in the way we executed in the second half, and we’re going to learn from victory with that,” Pitino said Tuesday of beating Kentucky.
“We think the league is much more important. It’s going to determine where you are at the end of the year. Beating Kentucky, we’re delighted for our fans but we didn’t give any postgame speech because of mistakes we made at crucial times. The Providence game is very big, so I don’t think that (letdown) will happen at all.”
Especially since many areas are a work in progress for the Cardinals, the defending conference tournament champions.
Pitino is pleased with Louisville’s 78.2-point scoring average, its highest in seven years and just behind the 2005 Final Four team (80.7). Part of that is due to the recent growth of sophomore forwards Chane Behanan (11.5 points) and Wayne Blackshear (9.6), though guards Russ Smith (19.8) and Peyton Siva (12.0) have improved their offense as well.
“Chane has worked hard at becoming the player he should be in the last month or so,” Pitino said, “and I think the guards are getting him the basketball more, which is really important.”
Surprisingly, Louisville’s defense is an area for concern. Although the Cardinals’ +8.4 turnover margin and 11.4 steals per game rank second nationally, Pitino believes they’ve become too reliant on Siva and Smith creating takeaways and wants to see more contributions from Luke Hancock and Kevin Ware.
Saturday’s return of junior center Gorgui Dieng from a broken left wrist should help the Cardinals’ post defense once he gets back into a rhythm. Pitino’s hope for the 6-foot-11 Senegal native is that he doesn’t allow foul trouble to make him as tentative as in the second half against Kentucky, which erased a 17-point deficit thanks to several Cardinals with at least three fouls.
“He didn’t play good defense,” Pitino said. “Four or five times he had the ability to go block the shot without fouling and he didn’t do it. You’ve got to play good defense out there, you can’t back away.”
At the moment, Louisville has offered little defense against a flu epidemic. Pitino said he was affected during the Kentucky game and the virus has spread to freshman center Mangok Mathiang, assistant coach Kevin Keatts and Behanan, who’s considered doubtful for Wednesday.
Louisville did not make players available Tuesday.
Providence, meanwhile, has recently gotten healthy. After starting 7-2 despite playing with seven or fewer players, the Friars welcomed former Arizona forward Sidiki Johnson and freshman guard Kris Dunn.
In Dunn’s collegiate debut following summer shoulder surgery, he tied a Providence freshman record with 13 assists while setting another school mark for the most in his first game. He’s averaging 7.0 assists, helping a Friars offense led by Big East scoring leader Bryce Cotton (22.0 points), sophomore forward LaDontae Henton (17.3) and junior forward Kadeem Batts (16.6).
Providence is 0-6 in Louisville but the memory of last year’s blowout win tells the Friars what can happen when everything clicks. Pitino is more focused on a strong follow-up and momentum he believes the Cardinals will need to defend their Big East title.