Louisville’s basketball rivalry with Memphis is probably better than its one with Kentucky. This version of Red vs. Blue certainly has run longer, although only old-schoolers on both sides maintain deep hatred. The Cardinals and Tigers have followed and fought each other through four different conferences (Missouri Valley, Metro, Conference USA, American) -- how many rivals can say that? Saturday’s meeting will be the final time (we think?) as league opponents, as Louisville jettisons the American for the ACC next season.
Louisville looks to avenge its 73-67 home loss to the Tigers on Jan. 9 and keep pace with Cincinnati for first place in the conference. The Cards were a disjointed team still trying to figure out who fit where in their loss. As Rick Pitino teams tend to do in February, they have hit their stride now. Louisville closed out the regular season of its 2013 national championship run with seven straight wins. The Cards got started a little earlier this season, and the proof is in their beards. Pitino and staff vowed not to shave until they lose a game. Their winning streak has reached seven games headed into Memphis.
Louisville guards Chris Jones and Russ Smith have developed a backcourt chemistry that was lacking earlier in the season. Jones is taking fewer shots; Smith is dishing more assists. The first meeting with the Tigers was a breakout game for senior forward Luke Hancock, last year’s Final Four Most Outstanding Player. He went from averaging 7.8 points in nonconference play to averaging 14.7 points in the American. Freshman Terry Rozier is becoming a budding star off the bench.
For Memphis and coach Josh Pastner, a win over the Cardinals could again bring validation that they could sorely use. Back in January, the Tigers’ road win over a ranked Louisville team brought credibility. The Tigers are staggering down the stretch of the regular season. They struggled with last-place Temple at home before winning 82-79 in overtime. They fell flat at Houston on Thursday and lost 77-68.
The schedule doesn’t present Memphis any breaks in its final three games. The Tigers close out conference play with arguably the toughest road in the league with Louisville, at Cincinnati and SMU. The Tigers will have the advantage of serving as hosts for the American tournament, but they can’t afford to try to build momentum then. They would love to start now and in the process send their old nemesis away to a new conference with the bitterness of a season sweep.