Pitino likes the challenge of Atlantis field

August, 2, 2012
08/02/12
4:17
PM ET
Louisville coach Rick Pitino isn't banking on another Final Four appearance. He said he doesn't like to predict such a thing.

But Pitino isn't shying away from a challenging nonconference schedule after last year when he rarely left home.

Pitino is playing games at Memphis, Charleston and Western Kentucky (in addition to the home rivalry game against Kentucky).

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Rick Pitino
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesRick Pitino has Louisville facing an impressive nonconference schedule.

The Cardinals are going to be picked No. 1 or No. 2 in most preseason polls. And that's why the organizers of the Battle 4 Atlantis didn't hesitate in giving the Cardinals a tough draw in the bracket that was announced Thursday.

Louisville will play traditionally pesky Northern Iowa in the first round Nov. 22 at the resort hotel on Paradise Island in Nassau, Bahamas. The Cardinals would then get Missouri or Stanford in the second game. Mizzou is likely to be picked third in the SEC behind Kentucky and Florida, while NIT champ Stanford could be picked third in the Pac-12 behind Arizona and UCLA.

The tournament is set up to get a Louisville-Duke final, but the Blue Devils are hardly a lock on their side. Duke plays Minnesota, which returns all-Big Ten forward Trevor Mbakwe after he missed most of last season with a torn ACL. The other game pits C-USA favorite Memphis against VCU, which will likely be picked third in its first season in the A-10 behind Saint Louis and Butler.

"It's probably the strongest opening field since the strong days of the Maui Invitational," Pitino said. "You will have six or seven ranked teams in the field."

Louisville, Missouri, Memphis and Duke all should be ranked. Stanford has a strong case. Minnesota and VCU may have to win in Atlantis to get noticed that early in the season. And like the other seven teams, Northern Iowa starts the season truly believing it has an NCAA tournament team.

VCU's Shaka Smart and Stanford's Johnny Dawkins both said Thursday that this will be a tremendous way to evaluate their respective teams.

"That Missouri-Stanford opener will be a lot of fun for the fans and a great way to open the tournament," Missouri coach Frank Haith said. "Johnny has really built a strong foundation, and his team finished great last year. "

Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said he knew he was getting either Louisville or Duke in the first game and was fine with either team.

"People wondered why you would want to be in a field with seven teams as strong as this, but you can go 0-3 and come away with playing all top 40-50 RPI teams," Jacobson said. "All three games will be good for us."

Memphis coach Josh Pastner said, "This will be the greatest preseason tournament in college basketball. I'm not sure I've seen a tournament where all eight teams are possible NCAA tournament teams."

Pitino said Maui is a great tournament for West Coast teams, but the travel for the players and fans can be draining. He said the two-hour trip to the Bahamas will be just like any other road game. The Cardinals took a summer trip to the Bahamas in 2011.

Harvard won the event last year. The tournament isn't played in a traditional arena or even a smaller gym like the comfy confines in Lahaina, Maui. The games are played on a court placed in the middle of a ballroom at the hotel.

The tournament will provide an early glimpse at the title-contending Cardinals, who will be Duke's go-to player, the health of Mbakwe, an evaluation of Memphis' quickness, the ability of VCU and Northern Iowa to rise up to early challenges, the impact of the transfers on Missouri and the carry-over of Stanford's NIT title.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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