Rick Pitino has enjoyed considerable success when facing his former assistant coaches.
There’s a good chance that will continue Sunday night when the fourth-ranked Cardinals host Kevin Keatts and UNC-Wilmington.
The 62-year-old Pitino is 37-10 against his former assistants and opened this season with an 81-68 win over Minnesota, coached by son and ex-Louisville assistant Richard Pitino. Keatts, who spent the past three seasons on the Cardinals’ staff, is the 27th former Pitino player or assistant to become a head coach.
“We’re excited to have him back in town,” Pitino said. “He’s one of the best assistants I’ve had. He’s got the total package, we really miss him here.”
Though Pitino thinks highly of Keatts, he won’t take it easy on his friend and former colleague but also expects the Cardinals (8-0) to play with the same intensity he knows Wilmington will bring.
“You have to take care of business at the defensive end, take good shots and make sure you execute at both ends properly,” Pitino said.
The Cardinals haven’t done that consistently on offense, getting held below 40.0 percent from the field three times, but had regularly been dominant defensively until their most recent game. They allowed an opponent to top 70 points and 40.0 percent shooting for the first time in Tuesday’s 94-74 win over Indiana at Madison Square Garden.
Louisville let the Hoosiers shoot 47.5 percent but forced 19 turnovers that resulted in 19 points. The Cardinals also held a 52-34 rebounding advantage, scored 48 points in the paint and totaled 25 second-chance points.
Terry Rozier scored a game-high 26, backcourt mate Chris Jones had 24 with nine rebounds, five assists and three steals, and Montrezl Harrell added 21 points with 11 boards.
“Our backcourt played a great game and Montrezl Harrell, who I think is the best player in the nation – I’ve said that for quite some time because very few players can play with that type of motor,” Pitino said.
The 6-foot-8 Harrell is averaging a team-leading 16.8 points on 64.1 percent shooting and has posted four straight double-doubles, grabbing 11.5 boards per game in that stretch.
“He has a skill like Kenneth Faried and Dennis Rodman, in his prime,” Pitino said. “Just playing every possession as if he hasn’t eaten in a week. It’s quite special.”
Harrell could be quite a burden for Wilmington (3-2), which has been outrebounded by three of the four Division I teams it’s faced. Seven-foot sophomore C.J. Gettys has potential, but is averaging 4.2 points, 3.4 rebounds and 16.4 minutes for the Seahawks.
Wilmington hasn’t played since a 105-47 victory over St. Andrews Presbyterian on Dec. 3, which was the most lopsided win in school history but came against an NAIA school. One game earlier, the Seahawks lost 72-49 at Davidson.
Freddie Jackson averages a team-high 18.0 points after scoring 33 against St. Andrews, but he totaled 31 in losses to Old Dominion, UNC-Greensboro and Davidson.
Wilmington is playing five of its first six games and 17 total on the road this season.
“When you have the opportunity to play as many road games as we have this season, it’s going to help you when you go into the hostile environments in the conference,” Keatts told the school’s official website.
The Seahawks have dropped 10 straight against ranked opponents since a 93-89 overtime win over then-No. 18 USC in the first round of 2002 NCAA tournament.