LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Rick Pitino has been friends with UNLV coach Lon Kruger a long time.
Pitino has watched Kruger take a team to the Final Four and admired the way Kruger has returned UNLV to respectability.
The Louisville coach swears he's not overstating things when he calls this year's edition of the Runnin' Rebels the best Kruger's ever put on the floor.
"I think he's always had good teams, extremely well-coached teams, but I think this team goes beyond that because they're much more gifted offensively than teams he's had in the past," Pitino said. "Anytime you play the competition they've played and you're shooting 53 percent, that's saying something."
And even if Pitino is going overboard, there's little doubt the 20th-ranked Rebels (9-0) are the best team No. 24 Louisville (7-0) has faced this year.
That's not saying much. Other than a season-opening 88-73 win over Butler, the Cardinals have fattened their record against overmatched competition by an average of 25 points a game.
The road gets significantly tougher on Saturday. It's a test the Cardinals have anxiously been waiting for in hopes of proving they're for real.
"We want to come out and give them everything we have and show everyone we can play," said freshman guard Elisha Justice.
UNLV has won three of the last four in the series, including a pair of wins over significantly more talented Louisville teams.
Yet Pitino says he's been pleased with the progress the Cardinals have shown. He pays no attention to the team's poor strength of schedule. With play in the Big East looming in less than a month, the goal of the first weeks of the season was to give his young roster some confidence.
He'd be concerned if Louisville was struggling against the likes of San Francisco and Chattanooga, but the Cardinals are dominating.
He doesn't expect that to happen on Saturday, and that's fine. It's time for his team to show some grit. It won't be easy against a team holding opponents to 37 percent shooting and already boasting wins over Wisconsin, Murray State and Virginia Tech.
Pitino pointed toward UNLV's versatility as a major issue. There's a lot of interchangeable parts on the Runnin' Rebels, who have nine players averaging at last 14 minutes a game.
"You can't tell what position they play," Pitino said.
He pointed to guard Derrick Jasper as proof. The senior spent two injury-laden years at Kentucky playing point guard. Finally healthy, he can play anywhere from the point to power forward.
"This team is especially more difficult than his other teams because they're so diverse in their attack," he said. "They can beat you in many different ways."
Which is why Pitino loves playing the Rebels. What the Cardinals will see on Saturday is a primer for what they'll face in conference play.
"I knew scheduling them ... it was truly to prepare us," Pitino said. "Each step along the way we've played them and they've helped us become a better basketball team. I don't think there's any team on the West Coast that could help us like they do because they are a Big East team the way they play."
The Rebels will likely try to slow the Cardinals down and run their halfcourt offense. It's not something Louisville has done particularly well this season, not that they've needed to. They will this time. That's fine by the players, who are ready for a long-awaited litmus test.
"We have talked about this team before," Justice said. "We know they're going to be really tough, the toughest game we've played so far."