LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -Rick Pitino thought he was doing his team a favor when he coupled a trip to the Las Vegas Invitational with a rare true November road game against UNLV.
Now, with forward Juan Palacios and center David Padgett out with knee injuries, he's not so sure.
``We did this to try and make ourselves tougher,'' Pitino said. ``If I had my druthers right now I wouldn't do it.''
Too late.
The Cardinals (2-0) head west on Wednesday trying to forge ahead without their two most experienced players. Louisville will play three games in four days, taking on the Running Rebels (3-0) on Wednesday, followed by a matchup with BYU on Friday. The winner of that game will play either Old Dominion or No. 1 North Carolina on Saturday.
Two months ago, the game against the Tar Heels looked like a potential Final Four preview. Now, with the Cardinals missing their captain in Padgett and their only real holdover from the 2005 team that made it to the Final Four in Palacios, the task seems much more daunting.
``These three games are against teams that are outstanding,'' Pitino said. ``BYU is a nightmare to defend, UNLV is very difficult at the defensive end, and North Carolina is North Carolina. So it's going to be quite a test.''
A test the Cardinals think they're up to, even without Padgett and Palacios. While Pitino has bemoaned his team's lack of depth, he won't lack for options.
Senior Terrance Farley will likely step in at center for Padgett. While Farley isn't nearly as polished as Padgett offensively, he's the team's best shotblocker and has become a better rebounder.
And though teammates Earl Clark and Andre McGee shined in an easy win over Jackson State on Sunday, it was the intense play of Farley - who had two points and five rebounds in seven energy-infused minutes - that earned Pitino's praise.
``Terrance Farley was the best player on the court for those seven minutes,'' Pitino said.
Pitino likely won't have a choice in playing him more the rest of the season. Farley should split time in the middle with sophomore Derrick Caracter.
While Caracter said he's in the best shape of his life, he looked rushed offensively over the weekend, making just 7-of-18 shots in the first two games against weaker competition. The learning curve gets much steeper on Wednesday against a team that made the NCAA tournament's round of 16 last year.
Before the injuries, Pitino envisioned the Cardinals' offense revolving around Padgett and Caracter. Now they're likely to go small in an effort to compensate until Palacios returns.
Swingman Terrence Williams played long stretches at power forward over the weekend, and recorded just the third triple-double in school history against Hartford. He'll likely see more action spelling Earl Clark while the Cardinals go with a three-guard lineup of Edgar Sosa, Jerry Smith and Andre McGee.
It's a combination that worked well last weekend, though it helps when you make a school-record 22 3-pointers, as the Cardinals did against Hartford.
The Cardinals don't expect to get nearly as hot against the Running Rebels, but the play of McGee may have been the most surprising development of the early season. He won the starting point guard job over Sosa because of his defensive play, but McGee's offense appears to have finally come around as well.
The junior spent much of last season dealing with a variety of injuries, including bouts with dehydration and knee problems. But he looked just fine over the weekend, scoring 18 points in both games while making 10-of-17 3-pointers.
The trip to Las Vegas will be as close to a homecoming as the Moreno Valley, Calif., native will likely get this year. McGee said he's forgotten how many friends and family will make the 2 1/2-hour journey to watch the Cardinals, but he's simply happy they'll get a chance to see him play and not sit on the end of the bench in street clothes.
``Last year, sitting in shirts and ties while guys were playing, I kept thinking 'I want to be out there,''' he said. ``That's part of the game. I just want to come out and contribute.''

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