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December 28, 2011The preliminaries are over. Now it's time to get serious, meaning that the Big East Conference season has arrived for the University of Louisville basketball team.
(Oh sure, there's still a small matter of a New Year's Eve game up I-64 to be resolved, but nobody wants to talk about that yet, at least nobody who coaches or wears a Cardinal uniform).
Fourth-ranked UofL (12-0) will face its biggest challenge of the season when it tips off its Big East campaign by hosting No. 12 Georgetown (10-1) at 7 p.m. Wednesday (ESPN2) in the KFC Yum! Center in a matchup of two of the hottest teams in the country. UofL is off to its best start in 37 years and will put its 20-game homecourt winning streak on the line against the Hoyas, who have won eight straight since losing to No. 17-18 Kansas 67-63 in the Maui Invitational.
"I'm pretty excited for our team," UofL senior guard and tri-captain Chris Smith said Tuesday afternoon. "It's time to take the game to pretty much a new level for everybody or, like coach says, we'll get blown out every game. We can't open the Big East season 0-1.
"I'd say we're one of the top teams (in the conference) when we bring it and we're going to have to bring it every game. There's no Western Kentucky where we can just overpower them because we're bigger and we've got more talent. Big East teams all have talent, we have talent, it's just who's going to execute better."
It looks like another powerhouse year for the Big East. Unbeaten Syracuse tops both the AP and ESPN/USA Today polls, while Connecticut, Marquette and Pittsburgh, in additon to UofL and Georgetown, are also ranked in the top 25. Then there's Kevin Willard's much-improved Seton Hall (11-1), which is rated No. 6 in ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi's latest Ratings Percentage Index (RPI).
"The Big East is very strong, much better at the bottom than it's been," UofL coach Rick Pitino said. "Marquette, Syracuse and Georgetown were ready early. I think the rest of us are finding our way, navigating our way. You probably could pick Syracuse to win the Big East so far, but how do you pick them over Connecticut, Marquette, us, Georgetown, Pittsburgh? You'll know when you step on the court. It's going to be a long season."
Where does Pitino see the Cards in the Big East mix (they were picked third in the preseason poll of coaches)? "Fourth in the nation," he said. "You are what you are, right?"
Well, maybe. Nobody is claiming quite yet that UofL's top-5 ranking is legitimate, least of all Pitino, who is displeased with his team's transition defense, 3-point defense, says he has spent the last few practices concentrating on fundamentals and ticks off a half-dozen games the Cards could just as easily have lost.
"I don't think anybody sees greatness with this team," Pitino said. "I think you see terrific grit. We've managed to find a way to win and that speaks very highly of their attitude."
Georgetown has been the most surprising team in the Big East in non-conference play. After losing Austin Freeman, Chris Wright and Jullian Vaughn, the Hoyas were picked to finish 10th, but several veterans have stepped up, foremost 6-10 senior center Henry Sims (12.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg). And coach John Thompson III has one of the best 3-point marksmen in the land in 6-8 junior forward Hollis Thompson (22-46, 47.8 percent).
"Who does that?" Chris Smith said in amazement.
Furthermore, the tough-minded Hoyas are shooting 48.7 percent overall, while holding opponents to 38.8 and are hitting 37 percent from 3-point range vs. foes' 27.4.
"Georgetown is probably playing as good as any Big East team," Pitino said. "They are one of the better shooting teams I have seen come out of Georgetown in some time."
With the battle against UK coming just three days later in Rupp Arena, this is a huge week for the Cards, whom some observers consider still unproven because they have no wins over teams currently ranked in the top 25.
But no one dare mention the dreaded Wildcat word. "To be honest, we haven't talked about Kentucky one time, and we're going to keep it like that until we come out with a 'W' tomorrow," Chris Smith said. "Right now we have to focus on Georgetown because we have to be 1-0 doing into conference play."
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