Thanks to Pitino, Cardinals flying high

No. 9 Louisville on a roll under second-year coach

tough week for UConn

National notebook

January 24, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Those who believed Rick Pitino was not thinking clearly when he took over at Louisville two years ago have awful short memories. They probably thought the same when Pitino went to Providence in 1985 and to Kentucky in 1989.

If anything, the Cardinals program he inherited a few months after leaving the Boston Celtics was in better shape than the previous two collegiate jobs Pitino undertook.

The Cardinals weren't mired in a long period of losing as the Friars were. Nor was Louisville facing serious NCAA sanctions, as the in-state rival Wildcats were when Pitino went to Lexington.

But even those who figured Pitino's ego had gotten the best of him this time should reconsider, now that the 13-1 Cardinals, ranked ninth in this week's Associated Press poll, are among the hottest teams in the country.

"Last year, for us, anything was gravy," Pitino said earlier this season. "It was one of my favorite years because it was the least amount of basketball talent I've had as a coach.

"This year, with the infusion of Marvin Stone, the improvement of Luke Whitehead and Ellis Myles and the addition of our freshmen, we've gotten significantly better in one swoop."

Senior guard Reece Gaines could see the progress the Cardinals made last season, when Louisville finished 19-13 and lost to Temple in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament.

Inheriting a program that won just 12 games in the last season of Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum's 30-year, two national championship career, Pitino has brought the same pressing defense and three-point shooting offense that was successful in Lexington.

"It was definitely a big change because of the style of coaching was a lot different," Gaines said. "Coach Crum was really good at X's and O's and calling plays. Coach Pitino's style is more up and down, making plays as a player, more about being in shape so you could make plays."

The result: Since losing an early season game at Purdue, Louisville has won 12 straight, including a win at home over Kentucky (now ranked eighth) and one at Ohio State.

"We have as difficult a schedule ... as we could possibly have," Pitino said before his team beat DePaul, 71-43, at Freedom Hall on Wednesday. "Our schedule takes on a new meaning, starts a new path [with six of next 10 on the road.]"

DePaul coach Dave Leitao said that the Cardinals have made up light years under Pitino.

"You compare them to anybody across the country, and they're playing as well or better than anybody," said Leitao. "They play at warp speed and have a lot of guys playing well."

Gaines is aware that Pitino took Kentucky to the Final Four twice before winning a national championship in 1996. He also took Providence to the Final Four in 1987.

Could the Cardinals be this season's sleeper?

"I think so, since nobody is really talking about Louisville too much," Gaines said. "I think if we continue to work hard and continue to work on our rebounding, which is our biggest weakness, we could be a good team in March and make a good run. People are going to be surprised when they play against us."

The Husky horror show

Can you imagine any coach in the country who has slept less than Connecticut's Jim Calhoun has in the past week?

First, the Huskies lost at North Carolina on Saturday by three, missing a last-second shot that would have put the game into overtime. Then they lost at Miami on Monday by one, botching an inbounds pass that the Hurricanes turned into a game-winning three-point shot by Darius Rice.

"I'm devastated right now," Calhoun said after the Miami game. "I love this young team and I thought it would be a terrific win for us because we didn't play particularly well, but I'm like you with 3.3 [seconds] left on the clock, I thought something good was going to happen. And something bad happened."

Calhoun might be second-guessing himself for changing Connecticut's regular inbounds pass against the press. Instead of trying to get the ball to Taliek Brown, junior forward Shamon Tooles attempted to pass to Ben Gordon.

Tooles, who actually stepped over the line before making the pass, threw a weak pass that was stolen by Rice, who finished off a 43-point performance.

"Kids make mistakes and that's why we play the games," Calhoun said. "Shamon is not to be blamed. There are a lot of reasons why we lost the game but my biggest disappointment is that I thought it would be a defining moment for us. ... Now I hope it won't be."

The Associated Press, the Louisville Journal-Courier and the Hartford Courant contributed to this article.

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