No. 5 Cardinals face Western Kentucky in Nashville
Playing a rival sometimes requires going the extra mile.
With No. 5 Louisville and Western Kentucky, it means going an extra hour south.
The Cardinals and Hilltoppers resume their annual rivalry Saturday night at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. The game is part of a series in which Louisville hosts two games, WKU one on campus with one in the Music City.
Louisville (10-1) has become used to playing at neutral sites this season. The Cardinals played three games last month at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas, losing to Duke in the championship game.
Saturday also marks the Cardinals' second trip to Tennessee in a week. They beat rival Memphis last Saturday.
Western Kentucky (8-4) leads the series 39-36, including 5-2 on neutral courts. Which is exactly why Louisville coach Rick Pitino likes this game.
"With the exception of one time, Western Kentucky always plays us tough,'' Pitino said Friday. "They played us tough at home last year, beat us once at home and we know it's going to be a great basketball game. And we look forward to progressing from the last game we played against FIU.''
Pitino said he was encouraged by Louisville's play in the 79-55 victory over a Florida International team coached by his son Richard. The Cardinals outshot the Panthers 49 percent to 33 percent, scored 25 points off 14 turnovers and were solid from 3-point range (12 of 32) in winning their fifth straight game.
Sophomore forwards Wayne Blackshear and Chane Behanan combined for 32 points and 19 rebounds, providing another nice effort while center Gorgui Dieng continues recovering from a broken left wrist. Although the 6-foot-11 junior has dressed the past few games and has been working out with the Cardinals, Pitino still doesn't expect him back until January.
"If he's able to play, he'll play,'' senior point guard Peyton Siva said about Dieng. "Right now, we're not trying to rush him back. We need him more for the end of the season than right now.''
Dieng's absence has provided minutes for 6-foot-8 freshman Montrezl Harrell, who had seven points and five rebounds in 20 minutes Wednesday night. Though more suited for power forward, he has gotten a good dose of life in the pivot and Pitino believes that will help him even after Dieng returns.
Louisville faces a WKU squad that has lost two in a row since a six-game winning streak. However, those Hilltoppers' losses were at rival Murray State and Virginia Commonwealth, both of which reached the NCAA tournament last season.
And Western Kentucky's win total is way ahead of last season's pace. The Hilltoppers didn't win their eighth game until Feb. 4.
They've improved in several areas under second-year coach Ray Harper. Besides winning 15 of 20 games dating back to last season, the Hilltoppers have raised their scoring average eight points from a year ago to 68.2 and are grabbing four more rebounds per game (40.3).
Sophomore guard T.J. Price (16.9 points) leads WKU's offense.
The Hilltoppers are also 2-0 in the Sun Belt Conference. But the number that the Cardinals should be wary of is WKU's 2-1 mark in Nashville, including a 68-54 win in 2008 over a Louisville team ranked third at the time.
Louisville won last year's game 70-60 at home but had to overcome a 13-point deficit with eight minutes left. That's enough to keep the Cardinals' attention on this in-state rival rather than on another one down the road next Saturday.
Especially since WKU has been strong against Louisville on neutral ground.
"This is a rivalry game,'' Pitino said. "We consider them a rival and we hope they consider us a rival. We've got great respect for their tradition and their program, so we know how hard they're going to play. They weren't nearly as good as us last year, and it was anybody's game.''
SI Now: Jay Wright on historically clutch March Madness performances
Davis: Three Cinderella teams to take a chance on