Huggins, Pitino Set to Renew Rivalry in Louisville

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- Rick Pitino has seen it all before, hard lessons learned from years of facing Bob Huggins when Huggins used to prowl the sideline at Cincinnati.

Most of the hallmarks of a Huggins-coached team are readily visible when Pitino watches film of West Virginia. The man-to-man defense. The relentless pace. All of it is only too familiar to the Louisville coach.

Only now there's something different, something Huggins has in his first year with the Mountaineers he never really had when coaching the Bearcats: shooters.

The West Virginia team that Huggins brings into Freedom Hall on Thursday to face the Cardinals (10-4, 0-1 Big East) is a hybrid of sorts. Huggins has maintained the free-flowing offense installed by former coach John Beilein and combined it with the hard-nosed defense that has become Huggins' trademark over 26 years and 601 career victories.

"It shows you what a good coach he is because he adapts," Pitino said. "Any coach that takes over a program, the one thing he would want is experience and shooting ability. At Cincinnati, he got the toughness but they couldn't shoot like these kids. It's much easier to teach toughness than it is shooting."

The Mountaineers (11-3, 1-1) rode both to an upset win over Marquette on Sunday, making nine 3-pointers while holding the Warriors to 42 percent shooting and outrebounding them 38-28.

"I think they play every possession and they've improved their rebounding dramatically, that's the biggest change in West Virginia from last year to this year," Pitino said. "Last year you could offensive rebound against them. Not only us, but every team could offensive rebound. (But) this team does not give up offensive rebounds easy."

Huggins, typically, is slow to praise his team's improved effort on the backboard even though they are averaging four more rebounds than opponents.

"We're getting better," he allowed. "We're more active in trying to rebound it. We've got more guys now trying to rebound it. ... We kind of stood and watched it before. Now we're starting to get in the mode of trying to go get rebounds."

The Mountaineers will likely need every one of them against the bigger, deeper Cardinals. Louisville pounded rival Kentucky in a win at Rupp Arena on Saturday, a victory forward Juan Palacios thinks should give the Cardinals a much-needed boost after a stunning home loss to Cincinnati on New Year's Day.

"We cannot keep losing at home," said Palacios, who scored a season-high 17 points against Kentucky. "Having a big game against Kentucky ... it just kind of gives me a little bit more confidence, not just me but the whole team."

Pitino credits the turnaround to the return of Palacios and center David Padgett from injury. Palacios missed the first nine games with a torn ligament in his right knee, while Padgett missed 10 games with a fractured kneecap.

"I think that when you have Padgett and Palacios, your basketball IQ rises tremendously because they're seniors and they understand the scouting report," he said. "They know what it is. Anytime you play a group of sophomores, they're not going to know it as well as the seniors. It's just a matter of repetition."

"There are some things that we need to understand, and when we do them we play really well," Palacios added. "When we have the ball and bring the ball up the court and play solid defense, we seem to do very well. Sometimes, I don't know why, we take off that and we just go to the basket too much instead of penetrating and getting the ball to the open person."

Getting inside and kicking it out for the open 3-pointer is something the Mountaineers have ridden to three straight 20-win seasons. Another one could be within reach if they continue to play as crisply as they have in nonconference play. West Virginia is averaging just over 11 turnovers a game, a remarkably low number considering how quickly they play.

"The thing that sticks out with Bob's team, he understands that these guys do something really well and he hasn't changed it," Pitino said. "He understands they're a great passing team and he understands their strengths, so he's put his trademark in certain areas and he hasn't taken away from their skills or playing a certain offense."

As solid as the Mountaineers have played, however, there are still some steps Huggins knows they'll have to take if they truly want to compete in the Big East, namely winning on the road. West Virginia was humbled by Notre Dame in its lone conference road game, and was just 3-6 in true road games last season.

"We're playing to win the league championship, which means you're going to have to beat those people," Huggins said.

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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