Pitino has the Cards Ahead of Schedule
By Ken Davis
I can’t get these words out of my head. Louisville coach Rick Pitino actually told me this during an interview in early September: “We know we’re rebuilding somewhat, and I think when you’re at this level, you hope it’s rebuilding by February and not the following year.”
Pitino knows his basketball. That’s no surprise. The amazing thing was the feel he had for his players — and this team — more than a month before official practices began. Lucky guess? I don’t think so. Pitino is one of the best at knowing how to bring a team along and how to prepare for the most important segment of the season.
The Cardinals actually got there quicker than he anticipated. Louisville is 6-2 in January and wraps up the month tonight at Georgetown. But after dramatic victories over West Virginia and Connecticut last week, the Cardinals are serious players in the Big East race. That 79-78 win in double overtime at UConn Saturday elevated Louisville (17-4, 6-2) into sole possession of second place behind Pittsburgh (20-2, 8-1).
This is a team the Big East coaches picked to finish tied for eighth in the preseason poll. Actually, it’s not even that team. The Cardinals have had so many injuries it takes almost a full page of Louisville’s pregame notes to chronicle them all.
Pitino has told his team not to look at the big picture.
“I remember one speech at the beginning of the year, and I told [the players], ‘Look, no matter what happens, this is our bridge year. So everybody stay positive. No matter what happens,’” Pitino said Saturday. “Then we lost [Jared] Swopshire. I said, ‘You gotta stay positive.’ Seven concussions. ‘You gotta stay positive.’
“Then we lost Rak [Rakeem Buckles] and normally a doctor says six to eight weeks, normally it’s four weeks. Now it’s 10 weeks. … We were just trying to survive this season. We really were.”
Swopshire, Louisville’s leading returning scorer and rebounder, has missed the entire season since injuring his groin in August. Buckles broke his left index finger in practice on Dec. 30 and hasn’t returned. Against the Huskies, freshman center Gorgui Dieng didn’t play because of a neck strain suffered against West Virginia.
Dieng has blocked 44 shots in 19 games. But the Huskies didn’t take advantage of his absence. Instead of getting into the lane and attacking the rim, UConn settled for jump shots — and that is not the strength of the Huskies. Pitino had his team playing zone defense but still jumping out in man-to-man coverage to challenge shots. Shabazz Napier (23), Jeremy Lamb (21) and Kemba Walker (20) combined for 64 points, but Walker, the National Player of the Year candidate, was 7-of-23 from the field.
For Louisville, center Terrence Jennings had 16 points and 10 rebounds. He called it his best game of the season. Guard Preston Knowles kept the Cardinals in the game early with three baskets from 3-point range and 15 points. But when Louisville trailed by nine in the second half, it was point guard Peyton Siva who took over.
Remember that name. During that interview in September, Pitino called Siva “the key to the team.” Against UConn, the former McDonald’s All-American attacked the rim and scored 19 points. Four times he beat the UConn defense up top, got into the lane and scored on either a layup or dunk.
“This team, everybody has heart and everybody is stepping up,” Siva said. “This is just a good win for us on the road. We’ve just got to keep building off this and be a humble team. That’s what Coach P has been preaching to us. We’re a reflection of our coach and we’re going to keep on grinding to the end.”
Pitino has this team ready for February. Between now and March 2, the Cardinals have five more home games. They are 14-2 at home, including a 4-0 mark in Big East games.
And you might want to mark Feb. 27 on your calendar. That’s when Pittsburgh visits the KFC Yum! Center. There could be quite a bit at stake.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
The qualifications for this award are pretty standard. High point totals, lot of rebounds, double-doubles, triple-doubles, winning shots … you get the idea. This time we are going with pure emotion, a story that tugged at our heart, and put basketball and life in perspective. Kansas sophomore Thomas Robinson buried his 43-year-old mother Lisa on Thursday in Washington, D.C. She died of an apparent heart attack the previous Friday night. Robinson played the day after her death, as Texas snapped KU’s 69-game winning streak at Allen Fieldhouse. But as the Jayhawks won at Colorado on Tuesday, Robinson was back home dealing with funeral arrangements and trying to cope with so many things a young man and college student shouldn’t have to face. Most important was securing the future of his sister, Jayla, who is 7. It had been Jayla who called Thomas to tell him their mother was dead.
Robinson was back on the floor Saturday night when Kansas routed rival Kansas State 90-66. Robinson scored 17 points and had nine rebounds in 20 minutes. But the love in Allen Fieldhouse was more important and really quite overwhelming. More than 16,000 fans essentially put their arms around Robinson, gave him an ovation every time he checked in and out of the game. They tried hard to will every shot he took into the basket. He did finish 7-of-11 and scored three consecutive baskets in the second half. The effort was heroic in every sense of the word.
“I played tonight because I cannot sit around too long,” Robinson said. “I knew my mother wouldn’t want me to sit around crying about it forever.” Nobody would have blamed him. He also lost his grandmother and grandfather within the past month. How does a young man get through that type of tragedy? “This past month has really opened my eyes to how amazing this place is,” he said. “It is beyond words to describe how I feel and the love that I have for the University of Kansas and the fans.” We all learned a lot this week from the man known as T-Rob. He has many tough decisions ahead. We sincerely hope he finds the help he needs every step of the way.
FRESHMAN OF THE WEEK
Harrison Barnes. Remember that name? We certainly thought we’d be writing about the North Carolina freshman more than we have. He was a preseason first-team All-America pick by the Associated Press and from that moment his development seemed a little stunted. People became impatient, and that really wasn’t fair. Barnes is coming on now. His 3-pointer with 6.6 seconds left defeated Miami. Then he racked up a season-high 25 points in a win over NC State. As he grows up, the Tar Heels are maturing as a team. They’ve won eight of their last nine. By the time March rolls around, North Carolina might be a more dangerous team out of the ACC than Duke. Wouldn’t that be something?
GAMES OF THE WEEK
Monday, Jan. 31
Louisville at Georgetown
Slightly overlooked in that double-OT victory over UConn was the 16-point, 10-rebound performance by Louisville forward Terrence Jennings. Both were career highs. The Cardinals need him. After three straight losses, Georgetown has won four in a row.
Texas at Texas A&M
These two met on Jan. 19 when the Longhorns won at home ,81-60. This time the site is Reed Arena, but Texas has not lost since Jan. 8 when UConn got out of Austin with an 82-81 overtime win.
Tuesday, Feb. 1
Purdue at Wisconsin
Ohio State sits atop the Big Ten standings. If the Buckeyes look over their shoulders, they will see the Boilermakers and then the Badgers. This is a big one as the teams jockey for position.
Vanderbilt at Florida
The Commodores had a bad loss Saturday against Arkansas. Florida is leading the SEC East with a 5-2 record.
North Carolina at Boston College
The Tar Heels play the first of three interesting games. Next is Florida State at Chapel Hill, followed by the annual visit to Durham to take on Duke.
Wednesday, Feb. 2
Syracuse at Connecticut
Not long ago, both of these teams were undefeated. Now Syracuse has lost four consecutive and UConn is coming off its first loss at home. February begins with a bang in Hartford.
Duke at Maryland
Fact: Duke’s 15-point loss to St. John’s Sunday was the largest margin of defeat against an unranked opponent over the last 15 seasons for the Blue Devils. Fact: That was a tough break for Maryland, but the Terps will still be thinking upset.
Marquette at Villanova
Villanova is 5-3 in the Big East. Marquette is 5-4. Anything could happen.
Thursday, Feb. 3
Michigan at Ohio State
The Buckeyes are the only undefeated team left in college basketball. That makes Ohio State a big story every time the Buckeyes take the floor.
Pepperdine at Saint Mary’s
Saint Mary’s took a big step with that win at Gonzaga, then slipped back with a loss at Portland. The Gaels are still in first in the West Coast standings.
Friday, Feb. 4
Harvard at Princeton
A showdown of Ivy undefeated teams. Keith Wright leads Harvard in scoring, while Princeton’s balanced attack is led by Ian Hummer.
Saturday, Feb. 5
UNLV at BYU
The Rebels would like a little payback. BYU beat UNLV 89-77 in the first meeting of Mountain West rivals.
Kentucky at Florida
The Rowdy Reptiles can’t wait for Kentucky to visit. Billy Donovan’s Gators hold a slim lead in the SEC East, but John Calipari’s young guns can change that.
St. John’s at UCLA
The Big Apple loves Steve Lavin and the Red Storm after that big win over Duke. Wonder what type of reception Lavin will get back in his old stomping grounding at UCLA? Ben Howland’s Bruins need some helping building their NCAA resume. Storylines everywhere.
Sunday, Feb. 6
Ohio State at Minnesota
Coach Tubby Smith is juggling lineups, trying to keep the Gophers in the Big Ten race with point guard Al Nolen injured. Everyone is gunning for Thad Matta’s team.
Michigan State at Wisconsin
Hard to believe the Spartans have eight losses overall.
THEY SAID IT
“I’m sure there are a lot of people that feel really good about winning up here.” — Michigan coach John Beilein, after a 61-57 victory at Michigan State. It was Michigan’s first win in East Lansing since 1997 and first win over Michigan State in either football or men’s basketball in 1,181 days.
“There were a few years back where people were used to these kinds of wins. And we’ll get it back, but to get it tonight and get it this way is really important.” — Indiana coach Tom Crean after the Hoosiers defeated Illinois 52-49.
“It’s not an Xs and Os thing today. I felt we were not ready to compete, we had blank expressions on our faces and guys weren’t talking and that’s my responsibility. Our program didn’t do well today, and that is all our responsibilities.” — Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski after the Blue Devils lost to St. John’s 93-78 at Madison Square Garden Sunday.
“He had some unfinished business,” — TJ Fredette, on the decision by his brother, Jimmer, to return to BYU for his senior season.
“It’s about winning plays, understanding what you have to do in winning games like this. Somebody has to be our Ashton Gibbs and hit a shot like that. It’s winning time in the Big East — you have to have somebody come up and take charge.” — Rutgers coach Mike Rice, after a 65-62 loss to Gibbs and the Pittsburgh Panthers.
“Isaiah Thomas, it’s not even close, there’s not one player in the country who’s more disrespected across the nation than him. Not one. It’s not even close. If he’s not one of the top four or five point guards in the country, then I’m going to tell you I want to invite these guys who vote to come and watch film.” — Arizona coach Sean Miller, after Washington’s Thomas scored 22 points, had 10 assists and six rebounds in an 85-68 victory over Arizona.
“Man did I really mess up this time … off 2 the gym I go!” — A tweet from Michigan State guard Korie Lucious. Later in the day it was announced Lucious had been dismissed from the team because of conduct detrimental to the program.
Duke didn’t just lose to St. John’s Sunday, the Blue Devils got manhandled by an unranked Big East team. St. John’s is under-.500 in conference play and carried a three-game losing streak into Madison Square Garden. That will undoubtedly launch more criticism of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Even when Duke was ranked No. 1, the ACC was being ripped for not having more ranked teams and for a conference RPI that has consistently No. 4 or No. 5.
Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton has heard enough. “I think those are ignorant people making those assessments,” Hamilton said last week. “And I’m almost getting sick and tired of people asking the question [about the strength of the league]. Because other than being fashionable to make a statement, then someone needs to give me some statistics to bear out that those statements are true.”
Hamilton’s team went out and backed him up at Clemson Saturday with just an awful performance. This is the same FSU team that handed Duke its first loss. But the Seminoles trailed 22-6 with 12 minutes left in the first half. When Clemson missed its last 14 shots of the half, Florida State could only manage six more points and trailed 27-18 at the break. The Seminoles were stuck on 18 for almost the first five minutes of the second half. Leading scorer Chris Singleton scored just two points in the first 35 minutes of the game and finished with eight. “There are moral victories and I guess there are moral losses,” Hamilton said. Whatever that means.
Jimmer Rising, Kemba Falling?
There was some high drama in the Jimmer and Kemba Show last week. BYU’s Jimmer Fredette has captured the national imagination much the same way UConn’s Kemba Walker excited everyone in November at the Maui Invitational. In a rare spotlight game for the Mountain West Conference, Fredette scored 43 points as the Cougars handed San Diego State its first loss of the season. Walker, meanwhile, is having trouble adjusting to the different defensive sets he is seeing in Big East play. He is getting doubled, bumped and can’t find the space he had in earlier games this season. Walker has shot 32.4 percent from the field his last four games. In the press conference after UConn’s loss to Louisville, coach Jim Calhoun was asked about Walker’s inability to get open. “I don’t want to talk about Kemba. Next question.” Asked later if Calhoun had expressed dissatisfaction toward him, Walker said, ‘No.” It will interesting to see how the Player of the Year voting is impacted.
Just when it looked as if Pat Knight’s job was in jeopardy at Texas Tech, the Red Raiders have caught fire. Mike Singletary had 33 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in a 92-83 win at Iowa State. Tech hosts Kansas Tuesday night.
Big Game for Tu
How about the line submitted by Tu Holloway of Xavier? Holloway had 33 points (career high), seven rebounds, and five assists as Xavier defeated Richmond 85-62. Oh yeah, he also was 17-of-17 from the free throw line. Holloway, a 6-0 junior, is averaging 21.1 points, 5.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds for the Musketeers.
Coaching strategy of the week: That goes to Mike Brey of Notre Dame. Brey went to his “burn” offense at Pittsburgh, slowed the game to a crawl, and came away with a huge 56-51 win over the Panthers at Petersen Events Center. That’s very impressive.
Ken Davis is the author of Basketball Vault books covering the history of the University of Kansas and the University of Connecticut. Both are available through the publisher
(http://www.whitmanvaultbooks.com/) and autographed copies are available at Ken's web page (http://kendavis55.wordpress.com/).