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October 31, 2012

Playing with a full deck

Coach Pitino says Cards are ready to roll this season

Rick Pitino knows he’s sitting on a live mount in the college basketball derby.

Louisville is ranked second in the pre-season Associated Press college basketball poll, just behind top-ranked Indiana, with Kentucky — the champion a year ago — ranked third. The coach waves away the significance of polls, but he can’t suppress the smile on his face. Pitino, now in his 12th season at Louisville, his 28th overall, is giving every indication he thinks his team might go the distance.

“I think we’re ready for it,” Pitino says. “We’re a very, very talented team. Very skilled in certain areas. And there’s not a group of guys I’d want more to go into war with than these guys. They’re ready to do battle.”

With three top players returning — guard Peyton Siva, center Gorgui Dieng and forward Chane Behanan — and a deep cast of characters set to fill the remaining roles, Louisville would, indeed, appear set to build on last year’s performance, which included 30 wins and a Final Four appearance.

And if the team encounters a bump or two along the way, Pitino advises supporters not to worry. “If we lose a few games, don’t go off the deep end,” he says at the annual Tip Off Luncheon. “Stay in the middle lane. Don’t get too close to the side of the bridge. We’ll be fine.”

In case fans have forgotten, there are likely to be bumps. Like last year, when February hit Louisville like a blizzard. A tough loss at Cincinnati, then one at home to South Florida in a game played at a snail’s pace. A TV commentator lowered his voice to say he never thought the day would come when South Florida would have better players than Louisville.

That nadir was followed by a loss at Syracuse, in which Louisville slowed the game to a crawl. No Louisville team in half a century, at least, had ever stalled.

But just as February blanketed the Cards, March melted the malaise. Louisville steadied, then caught fire to win the Big East Conference Tournament. They stayed hot out West in the NCAA tournament, but were finally stopped by eventual champion Kentucky in the Final Four in New Orleans. “Kentucky kept us from winning the championship,” Pitino says.

Gorgui Dieng hasn’t forgotten the slump of 2012, or the recovery.

“We weren’t down,” says the 6-foot-11 center. “Just losing games and could not find a way to stop it. But once we got back on the right track, we were playing our game like we used to.”

Guard Russ Smith recalls a moment of decision for the team. “We came back from Syracuse and said, ‘We’ve got to make a run, now how are we going to make this run?’”

Smith remembers Pitino zipped the team through a quick 30-minute practice — instead of the usual two hours. “We thought maybe it was some kind of coaching tactic. But we were all thinking about what we needed to do.”

That’s when Louisville dialed up the pressure.

“Everybody got healthy, and we were able to run a lot more, press a lot more, and we came together as a team,” Siva says.

“We’re a team of low egos,” he adds. “Everybody wants to win, and that’s always what we set out to do. Last year, those teams in the Big East, we’d already played them and knew we could compete with them. We took it to the Big East, and then we took it to the NCAA.”

That attitude is probably the trademark for Louisville. The team doesn’t tower over opponents in talent. They don’t have the All-American-type scorer who can get 30 points one night, 30 more the next. Louisville’s box score generally finds point totals reading something like 12, 14, 8, 15, 10 — plus scattered baskets from four or five more players.

But, as Pitino says, the Cards have stars who are “very skilled in certain areas.” As Dieng is at swatting away shots. The native of Senegal is the leading center in a league that leads in centers. Siva, sometimes acting in concert with fellow guard Russ Smith, presents the small man’s answer to a tall opponent’s height: steal the ball and rocket away. Pitino calls them the top pickpockets in basketball.

At first thought, one might picture forward Chane Behanan as a sturdy body atop tree-trunk legs. A hickory in the forest of Big East big men. But it isn’t Behanan’s frame that accounts for his success, it’s his footwork and speed.

Sophomore Wayne Blackshear could be the 30-point Cardinal, in time. The forward missed the first 24 games of his freshman season after surgeries on both shoulders. Right now, Pitino says Blackshear is still shying away from heavy contact — whereas he’d been a devastating defender and shot blocker in high school. But Blackshear is hitting shots.

Freshman Montrezl Harrell (Just Montrez, he says) is a rugged 6-8 forward determined to make his presence known at the basket.

Guard Kevin Ware plays the fast game Louisville likes. He’s adept at moving the ball along in transition. Another with a role to play is 6-10 center Zach Price. The better Price does coming off the bench to rebound and defend, the more time Dieng will rest. Last season, Dieng led the team in minutes played.

Tall freshman Mangok Mathiang, who was born in Africa but grew up in Australia, is likely to be red-shirted this season. Time for “Mango” to develop his skills and polish an entertaining line of patter.

Likely starter Luke Hancock is a 6-5 junior transfer from George Mason University with playing experience and an in-charge attitude. He’s a feisty shooter who dribbles and dishes to get the ball where he wants it. In two pre-season scrimmages, Hancock hit seven of 10 three-pointers. That’s good, because most Louisville threes clank off the rim.

“We’re not going to be a great three-point shooting team; I don’t think we have to be,” Pitino says. “We’ll make our seven or eight. That’s not our weakness, but I don’t think it’s going to be ourstrength, either. Our strength is going to be our speed, our quickness, our unselfishness.”

The smile flashes on again.

“And if we win a few games, try to stay humble,” he advises. “Don’t be calling in those shows and telling how good we are. Don’t be doing that. Hug your wife, have a glass of wine and relax.”

Could be a vintage year.