Livestock keep Louisville sidelined
Rick Pitino is unquestionably the single biggest personality in Louisville, but this week he's second fiddle to a bunch of cows, sheep and goats.
The floor of Freedom Hall is currently under several feet of dirt for the 30th annual North American International Livestock Exhibition. On Friday, when half the nation is playing ball, you can catch the beef show in Hall. On Thursday, the Boer goat show is right next door. And the sheep show is running all week.
That's life when your basketball facility is part of the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center, and you must share dates with any number of attractions. And that's why no team in America will start its season later than the Cardinals. It's brutally hard to get into their own facility in November, which is why they've opened away from home 25 of the last 29 years -- including this year.
Louisville tips off its season Nov. 29 against Iowa in the Wooden Tradition in Indianapolis. The only other teams playing their season openers that day are UCLA, Missouri and Central Connecticut State. Everyone else -- including the Hawkeyes -- will have at least one game on the ledger by then.
Pitino isn't crazy about that. He knows that it takes real game experience to make a team improve.
"Iowa has two games (before Louisville)," Pitino said. "We're at a distinct disadvantage, because we can't open at home. We've got to open up and be ready right away."
To get his team ready, Pitino at least will manage to get both exhibition games in -- which isn't as simple as it sounds. This is the first time in memory that Louisville wasn't forced to delay one exhibition until after it started playing real games -- again, because of Freedom Hall scheduling issues.
Pitino also has put his team through a succession of public scrimmages. Referees, crowds, the whole deal, giving everyone a chance to inspect how the Cardinals are faring without do-everything point guard Reece Gaines. (The answer: It's a work in progress. Taquan Dean is not a natural point guard but is embracing the position as best he can. Look for splendidly skilled Francisco Garcia to play a fair amount of point forward, especially in late-game situations or when the shot clock is winding down.)
Pitino wants to use the scrimmages and exhibitions to help first-year players Brandon Jenkins, Nate Daniels and Nouha Diakite get experience playing in front of crowds. The last thing he wants is stage fright in Conseco Fieldhouse from his newbies. Louisville drew 17,500 for its first exhibition game and more than a thousand for each of its scrimmages, which were themed around Cardinals football games.
"We had a college student scrimmage, a tailgate scrimmage -- now we're thinking of one for senior citizens only," Pitino quipped.
The last scrimmage showcased the incredible physical conditioning that helped Louisville wear down so many opponents last year. The Cards went NBA length -- four 12-minute quarters -- without timeouts and with a halftime that lasted about two minutes. With only two subs per side, players went all-out with very little rest -- and both sides still managed to shoot the lights out.
To Pitino, that's as much a commentary on this team's suspect defensive mentality as it is a testament to its prodigious offensive ability. And he knows that Iowa will put that to the test.
Pitino would like at least one dress-rehearsal opponent from the low end of Division I up front. But he has never been shy about rugged early scheduling.
That's a big reason why Pitino teams almost always lose early. In 17 seasons as a college head coach, 15 of his teams have lost within the first six games of the year. The exceptions were his Final Four Providence team, which started 10-0, his first Final Four Kentucky team, which began 11-0 and reached No. 1 in the rankings.
If you schedule games against quality teams at neutral sites, you're going to lose some early. Which only bothers Pitino when the losses are actually occurring.
"If you open with three easy games at home, you're probably going to be 3-0," Pitino said. "If you open with difficult games, you're probably going to lose your share. If you beat some of these teams, you don't learn much. If you beat Iowa, you know where you stand a little bit."
In three seasons at Louisville and eight at Kentucky, only once has a Pitino team not had a major neutral-site game before Christmas. This year, Louisville follows the Iowa game in Indy with a dangerous game Dec. 4 against Western Kentucky in Nashville. The Hilltoppers' fans will certainly be gunning for that one after being outraged at what they considered Pitino's attempts to dodge playing Western while 7-foot center Chris Marcus was in school, delaying this game a couple of years.
After that, Lousiville won't leave the state until January. It plays eight home games and a road game of some consequence -- at Kentucky, Dec. 27. In December alone, Pitino plays against three former assistants: Ralph Willard and Holy Cross Dec. 7, Billy Donovan and Florida Dec. 13 and Tubby Smith's Wildcats.
Pitino has only lost to a former assistant one time, two years ago to Smith in an incredibly charged atmosphere in Rupp Arena. He's maintained the upper hand on his proteges -- but this week he's still not as important in Louisville as four-legged livestock.
Buzz Peterson appears to be moving Tennessee back into contender status, and he's doing it with second-chance players.
The Volunteers will start a pair of transfers Friday in the season opener against Wofford. Guard Scooter McFadgon, a transfer from Memphis, averaged 14.5 points in the Vols' two exhibition games, third-highest on the team. Power forward Jemere Hendrix averaged 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Those two will be joined next year by another player who originally was ticketed elsewhere. This week Tennessee announced the signing of 6-11 former McDonald's All-American Jackie Butler, who committed to Mississippi State but was academically ineligible last year and went to a prep school.
Combine those three with a roster that contains no seniors, and Tennessee is on course for a breakthrough season -- next year. Without Ron Slay and two other starters from last season's NIT team, Peterson has scheduled cautiously. The Vols' only non-conference road games are at Nebraska and Massachusetts, and the home non-conference schedule is cupcake-intensive. The only non-SEC big name coming to Thompson-Boling Arena is Louisville in January.
|Games to Watch|
Western Kentucky at Auburn
Eleven SEC teams open with automatic W's. Then there's the Tigers, who dared to take on College of Charleston Monday night and now face NCAA Tournament regular Western the night before the main event in town: Auburn-Alabama football. The game will be the debut of new Hilltoppers coach Darrin Horn, a former Tom Crean assistant at Marquette.
Indiana at Vanderbilt
The Commodores have high hopes for a turnaround season, with SEC preseason Player of the Year Matt Freije leading four returning starters against what could be a vulnerable Indiana team. After failing to make the NCAA Tournament his first four years, Kevin Stallings might need a big year to keep his job -- and this would be a big way to start.
Northwestern at DePaul
Battle for Chicago won't be a run-and-gun game, but it features two teams optimistic about having breakthrough seasons. Blue Demons haven't played in the NCAA Tournament since 2000 and, unbelievably, haven't won an NCAA Tournament game since 1989.
Charlotte at Syracuse
The 49ers always play a tough early schedule, and it doesn't get much tougher than Thanksgiving Eve at the defending national champions. But with seven of their top nine scorers back and 7-foot freshman Martin Iti, Charlotte is dreaming big.
"Junior, you're reminding me of your brother in the championship game."
-- Louisville coach Rick Pitino to senior guard Alhaji Mohammed Jr. as he bricked free throw after free throw in a recent scrimmage. His brother is Nazr Mohammed, whose 0-for-6 foul shooting against Arizona in the 1997 title game played an instrumental role in Kentucky missing out on a bid to repeat. The coach of that team hasn't forgotten.
Pat Forde of the Louisville Courier-Journal is a regular contributor to ESPN.com
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