Old rivals Memphis, No. 6 Louisville meet again
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP)
The game could also offer a look into the future, albeit briefly.
The former Conference USA rivals will be meeting for the 87th time but this one has the feel of a Big East Conference game. That's because Memphis is scheduled to join Louisville in the league next season.
For schools very familiar with each other, that makes their rivalry more intriguing even if Louisville has already announced it will be leaving for the Atlantic Coast Conference.
For the Cardinals (8-1), this is another test in a season that has seen them play Northern Iowa, Missouri and Duke. That Memphis reminds Louisville coach Rick Pitino of his own squad makes it that much more important, especially since the Tigers (6-3) began the season ranked.
''It's probably not, in our minds, as the big as the Kentucky rivalry but to a lot of the fans it's just as important as that game,'' Cardinals point guard Peyton Siva said. ''We're just going in here with the mindset that it's a top-ranked opponent.
''Memphis is always good, every year. We grew up watching them with the Derrick Roses and everything.''
Pitino's only regret is that Memphis and Louisville won't be conference rivals for long. He was a vocal advocate for adding Memphis to the Big East. While he's excited for Louisville's opportunity in the ACC he's disturbed by the tradition lost in the changing landscape of college athletics and what it has meant for schools like Memphis to be left in limbo.
''I pushed very hard for Memphis to get in the Big East,'' Pitino said. ''I feel bad that they were looking so forward to it and now it's falling apart.
''It's sad but we are corporations today. That's what it's all about. We are corporations and we're being taken over by bigger corporations.''
Pitino is more concerned though with the health of his team. Louisville is already without center Gorgui Dieng, who broke his left wrist in last month's Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas.
Other players are hurting as well, causing Pitino to be more cautious in practice.
''I'm trying to hold this thing together right now and it hasn't been easy because we are a little banged up,'' he said.
Siva said recent practices have been a bit shorter with less work on the team's signature press defense. The Cardinals have worked through injuries throughout his four years he said and Saturday's test against a physical opponent would be no different.
''I just think it's basically another Big East game,'' Siva said. ''We've played a lot of tough opponents in the Big East and we've dealt with it before.''
Siva, the Big East's preseason player of the year, has gotten a boost this year from backcourtmate Russ Smith. Smith's 24 points and seven steals last year against the Tigers were both career bests.
He set a career high with 31 points in Louisville's last outing, a 99-47 win over Missouri Kansas City, and is averaging 20.3 points a game this season.
''It's a lot easier this year with him being able to attack, teams have to focus on him without the focus being just on me,'' Siva said.
Louisville's offense has been sparked mainly by its defense. The Cardinals are forcing more than 22 turnovers a game and lead the nation in turnover margin at plus-9.2. Louisville has scored 35 percent of its points off turnovers and Smith (3.2 steals per game, fifth nationally) and Siva (2.7, third in Big East) are among the nation's top takeaway artists.
''Let's face it, when you're a big steal team you're going to get a lot of layups,'' Pitino said. ''There's no better fast break than a steal.''
Last year's matchup was the first since the 2005 Conference USA tournament championship game that saw Memphis guard Darius Washington Jr. collapse to the court after missing two of three free throws that would have won the game.
Siva said his Louisville teammates don't know much about the long history between the schools but they do respect how much the game means to both cities.
Especially since both schools could learn a lot about themselves from it.