LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- The University of Louisville released its men's basketball schedule Wednesday at noon, just hours before Lindy's Sports College Basketball Yearbook handed the Cardinals a No. 1 preseason national ranking.
There will be no easing into this basketball season for Rick Pitino's Cardinals, who return the bulk of a Final Four team that will be expected to perform from Day 1.
Six of U of L's first 12 regular-season games will be away from the KFC Yum! Center, including the Thanksgiving wee trip to the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, where it will face Northern Iowa, then either Missouri or Stanford, while Memphis, VCU, Minnesota and Duke will play though the other side of the bracket.
U of L also will face Memphis on the road on Dec. 15 and UK at home on Dec. 29 at 4 p.m. And all of those games could have a bearing on postseason positioning for the Cards.
The Big East is always difficult, and U of L gets Syracuse and Notre Dame, two other top league teams, as mirror opponents. But with the schedule more front-loaded than usual and the expectations through the roof the early season takes on a new emphasis for Pitino and the Cardinals, and some subtle changes in the practice gym might be big when it comes to early season performance.
Pitino says he's likely going to tweak his approach to early season workouts to focus more on those things that his team is particularly good at, rather than spreading the emphasis over all areas.
"Some of the mistakes I've made as a coach -- and why some teams weren't more ready early in the season -- I would start my practices where we would put in our press, zone, man defense, run and jumps, put in everything at the beginning, then I'd start working on the parts," Pitino said.
"We'd put the whole in first then work on the parts, but the parts weren't really good. They'd grade out at a C or a B, and they'd start to become an A sometime in January or early February. Well, that's perfect because my whole goal was to get ready for March. But now, the solution for me is we've got to have, depending on how soon you need it, you may have to have Bs and As right away. Today, you may not be able to get where you want to go, because of the way you're judged, if you don't get there quicker."
That's one part of the early season plan. The other took place in the offseason, when Pitino ordered his players not to play pick-up basketball, but only one-on-one games, just keeping score to five, so that each possession would have some urgency. Those were part of a new set of rules he gave players -- including the instruction of not spending more than 45 minutes on the basketball court except for individual workout or team practice days.
"I said I don't want you playing pickup basketball, because that's how you regress," Pitino said. "I said I'd rather you play one-on-one basketball, with these rules -- games of five. If you play games of five you're playing hard on offense, hard on defense, winners come on. Play no more than that. Anything more than that, you start to break down, you don't guard, you don't have your hands ready, you don't play defense, you don't really get after it offensively. So I've given them certain things to follow -- improve your quickness, improve your strength and spend 45 minutes on your game each day."
It's all about building good habits during the two-hour sessions the NCAA allowed teams to have this summer, then trying to keep players from breaking those habits when playing on their own.
Of course, when it comes to early success, having a veteran team that is highly motivated doesn't hurt, and Pitino thinks he has that.
"We have an extremely competitive team that loves challenges," Pitino said in a statement released with the schedule. "We're very excited to not only be traveling to face a terrific field in the Bahamas, but from the first game on we will be tested. We look forward to that challenge."
The schedule will have no shortage of familiar faces. Elisha Justice and Pikeville will visit in the first exhibition, followed by Scotty Davenport and Bellarmine in the second. Richard Pitino will bring his Florida International team to the KFC Yum! Center for the Billy Minardi Classic. And U of L will face Western Kentucky in Nashville before a week off to prepare for the annual clash with UK in Louisville on Dec. 29 at 4 p.m.
"Last year we had the second-most difficult schedule in the nation (No. 4-ranked in the RPI), and I actually think this year's is more difficult," Pitino said. "It poses multiple challenges throughout the season that we haven't had in a while and we look forward to it."