LOUISVILLE — This isn't the start Samardo Samuels had in mind.
It's been a bumpy two months for Louisville's highly touted freshman, regarded by some to be the top incoming big man in the nation and one of the main reasons the Cardinals were a trendy Final Four pick in the pre-season.
Yet Samuels is the first to admit the learning curve has been steeper than he thought. While his numbers are good by almost any standard — he's averaging 13.5 points and 6.3 rebounds — he has struggled when playing someone his own size.
Samuels has scored in double figures just twice in his last six games as the competition has stepped up. It's a funk he'll have to snap out of on Saturday when the 23rd-ranked Cardinals (10-3, 1-0 Big East) travel to No. 18 Villanova (13-2, 1-1).
"Guys are more bigger and physical, they start banging you," Samuels said. "You've got to be tuned in. You've got to get ready. You just have to step up to the competition."
If Louisville wants to deliver on its pre-season promise, Samuels will have to do it quickly. Saturday's game is the start of a brutal eight-day stretch for the Cardinals, who host No. 13 Notre Dame on Monday and then play No. 1 Pittsburgh next Saturday.
Louisville Coach Rick Pitino knows it's too late to complain about it, because he knows every other team in the league is going through the same thing.
"Everybody is doing it," Pitino said. "As long as your competition is not getting an advantage, you live with it."
Having Samuels start to show a little maturity would help. Pitino said Samuels thought he was "embarrassed" by Kentucky's Patrick Patterson in Louisville's thrilling 74-71 win last week.
Patterson scored 22 points and grabbed 15 rebounds while Samuels managed just four points in 11 foul-plagued minutes. It's not exactly the national television debut Samuels wanted.
"I was frustrated, I was down on myself," Samuels said. "I'm going to keep a positive attitude ... and try to go in there and do my best."
The Cardinals will need it against the speedy Wildcats. Villanova is led by guard Scotty Reynolds and lithe 6-foot-8 center Dante Cunningham, who uses his quickness to beat stronger, bulkier opponents to the basket. Pitino said Samuels has to be more careful about staying out of foul trouble and using his feet instead of his hands to play defense.
"He's got to be smart, he has to close out, he has to make sure he doesn't reach in," Pitino said. "We've got to play an intelligent basketball game."