NCAA BK

Pitino knows what he has: a winner

Louisville Cardinals
The Cardinals are surging into the tourney after winning the Big East title game.
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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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There are several numbers you can point to if you want to make the argument it’ll be Rick Pitino’s Louisville team that cuts down the nets in Atlanta on April 8.

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Point to the fact that the Cardinals’ pressure-filled defense is second in the nation in steals per game and turnover margin, behind only Virginia Commonwealth. Mention that they’re second in the nation in defensive efficiency as well. Look at the fact that no team is hotter than the Big East tournament champions (their only loss since Jan. 26 was the five-overtime thriller at Notre Dame). Talk about the resilience they showed in the Big East title game, when they were down 16 points to Syracuse with 15:34 left and then outscored the Orange 49-16 the rest of the way. Point to numbers guru Ken Pomeroy, who has Louisville as the second-ranked team in the nation (behind a flawed Florida squad) as well as the No. 1 team in adjusted defensive efficiency.

But the best reason that this year’s No. 1 overall seed will be the national champion can be found not in dizzying conversations about how Louisville’s remarkable in-your-face defense can help it overcome any opponent. Instead, listen to Pitino, who was sitting at a podium in the bowels of Madison Square Garden around midnight on Saturday, talking about the character of this year’s team.

“I've had the greatest time of my life coaching these guys,” Pitino said. “They listen to every word you say: ‘Yes, sir, yes, sir, yes, sir.’ It's just an incredible experience to coach these guys.”

On the surface, this sounds like a misty-eyed coach throwing some compliments toward the young men he’s brutalized in practices all year. But there’s a key point in what Pitino was saying, a point that indicates why anyone looking to win an office pool should put Louisville in the winner’s circle. Coaches love to talk about whether their players have “bought in.” If a team hasn’t bought in, it looks shaky and disjointed, playing well below the potential of its talent and its coach (see: John Calipari’s immature Kentucky team this season).

But when a team does buy into its coach’s philosophy — and when that coach is a soon-to-be Hall-of-Famer like Pitino, one of the best basketball minds of his generation — that’s when five players begin to play as one, and that's where champions are born.

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Look no further than Louisville’s dramatic comeback against Syracuse last week. What you see is a team that hadn’t shot the ball well in the first half (26 percent from the floor). That poor offense, Pitino said, led to poor defense. “I had to jump our guys pretty hard at halftime because,” Pitino said, “our defense wasn't great because our offense was quick shooting, and we’re not a quick shooting team.”

But after Pitino tore into his players at halftime, they listened. The team that took the floor in the second half put on one of the most dominating performances in Big East tournament history. It started a suffocating full-court press. It forced Syracuse into 12 turnovers. It helped on defense every time the ball shifted from one Syracuse player to another, a magnificent and swirling dance that Pitino seemed to choreograph on the fly from the bench. It flustered Syracuse’s dynamic point guard, Michael Carter-Williams, and its senior leader, Brandon Triche. All that stellar defense led to confidence on offense, and a 56-point second half (compared to only 22 in the first half).

“We try to confuse, create total chaos, but we’ve got to do it in a smart way, and we did it in a very smart way offensively and defensively in the second half,” Pitino said after the win.

Sure, you can always pick the numbers to fit the argument. And that’s what anyone who has Louisville losing in that brutal Midwest Region will do: The Cardinals can’t shoot (104th in the nation in field-goal percentage), and they turn the ball over at a high rate (12.7 a game, 121st in the nation). Whatever. Those are dumb arguments that don’t apply to a pressure-oriented team like Louisville. They can survive a bad shooting night or too many turnovers because of that defense.

The smarter arguments against Louisville winning the title would go like this: It’s been the most unpredictable of college basketball seasons, so surely the No. 1 overall seed won’t win. There’s more parity in college basketball than ever before — Calipari has said 40 teams have a legitimate shot at making the Final Four — so you can’t really pick any one team as favorite. And Louisville’s region is absolutely brutal. It might have to beat the most difficult four seed (Saint Louis) plus either the most difficult two seed (Duke) or the most difficult three seed (Michigan State) to make the Final Four. It’s an unfair situation for the No. 1 overall seed to be in.

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But on the shoulders of one of the best-conditioned team in college hoops and the most dominating defense out there, Louisville will overcome all that unfairness.

At Madison Square Garden over the weekend, Pitino’s team did not cut down the nets after their Big East tournament victory. The players had cut down the nets when they won the year before. Why didn’t they do it again this year?

Pitino’s answer projected the air of confidence that surrounds this team. He thought cutting down the nets should be something special, so he only wants to do it once this season.

He’ll save it for April 8.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.

Tagged: Louisville, Syracuse

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