John Clay

John Clay: Louisville basketball’s soft schedule has made it tough to get a read on the Cardinals

For the second and final night of the Billy Minardi Classic at the KFC Yum Center, the Louisville Cardinals came out wearing mint-green sneakers, the color of which would have made the perfect icing on their cupcake schedule.

Rick Pitino’s team feasted at the pastry table once again Wednesday night, ripping his onetime pupil, Utah Valley coach Mark Pope, and the Wolverines 98-68.

Trey Lewis poured in 21 points, Quentin Snider added 15 and Damion Lee scored 11 as Louisville improved to 11-1. The Cards shot 69 percent the first half on the way to a 59-31 lead. Combined with its 75-47 win over Missouri-Kansas City on Tuesday night, this was sort of a pre-Christmas feast.

Then again, for the most part, such has been Louisville’s pre-conference diet. Stats guru Ken Pomeroy’s crunched numbers put the Cardinals’ strength of schedule at 322 in difficulty out of a possible 351 teams. Utah Valley was within the margin of error, ranked at No. 321 overall pregame by Pomeroy.

“We’ve had an easy road; no question about it,” Pitino said after the 30-point romp. “But now we’re going to have a very tough road, and I think these guys are going to be up for the challenge.”

Yes, the degree of difficulty rises considerably Saturday, when Pitino and company make the trip East on Interstate 64 to face Kentucky and John Calipari for the annual Commonwealth showdown. CBS has the noon broadcast.

As far as mapping out a pre-conference obstacle course, it’s an interesting contrast in styles. Kentucky hasn’t played a killer schedule. Pomeroy puts the Cats at No. 148 in his SOS rankings. Still, Kentucky has played UCLA in Los Angeles, Arizona State in Lexington and Ohio State in Brooklyn. It should be noted that the Cats did lose two of those three games: the two away from home.

Louisville did play now No. 1-ranked Michigan State in East Lansing. Not only did the Cardinals play the Spartans in the “Izzone,” they led by 13 points in the first half and were tied 58-58 with 5:34 left. Michigan State pulled out the win, 71-67, but observers came away thinking, you know, Pitino may have something here.

The coach has rarely favored difficult Decembers, but he claims there is good reason for this year’s softer touches. Seven newcomers dot this year’s roster. Pitino argued that he needed some opponents whose talent level would allow him to teach while his team jelled.

So far, so good. The Cards have moved from the wilderness of the preseason unranked to No. 16 in the Associated Press poll. They accomplished what Pitino wanted the schedule to accomplish.

“I think offensively we have,” he said Wednesday. “We’ve passed the ball well. We shot the ball well. Defensively, we're not where we need to be, but I wouldn’t expect it with all these new players, four starters gone, but we’ll get there. We’re just going to have to get there right away.”

On paper, the Cards appear deeper than Kentucky, even in the frontcourt without Mangok Mathiang, the 6-foot-10 backup center who broke his foot last Saturday. The backcourt is where the Cardinals click, however, thanks to graduate transfers Lee and Lewis, who have meshed quickly with Snider, the sophomore from Louisville.

Still, the question remains: How good is Louisville? The level of competition has made it hard to really know. The Cardinals have beaten teams the way good teams are supposed to be beat bad teams. They also outplayed Michigan State for a sizable part of the game clock. They appear to have the potential to make some ACC and NCAA noise.

Perception could change Saturday, however, for better or worse. Kentucky is undoubtedly a team in search of itself, one that has absorbed a couple of unexpected Ls. Still, the Cards will be crossing into loud and unfriendly territory.

And no one has ever put Kentucky-Louisville under the label of creampuff.

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