Admit it. More than a little surprised that the University of Louisville basketball team earned a No. 2 seed in the 2017 NCAA basketball tournament. Right?
Three losses in the last five games doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, watching UofL give up big leads in a couple of those games. The Cardinals could beat any team at the KFC Yum! Center but the outcomes anywhere else are uncertain, especially with this team.
Pleased about the good seed nevertheless. Optimistic, knowing Rick Pitino is the best motivator of young men among the 351 basketball coaches in Division I basketball. One could give Pitino a few practice sessions with some elderly church ladies from the basement kitchen and he would make them competitive.
Some of the Pitino’s teams have had no business going as far they did in NCAA tournaments. His Providence team in the late eighties lost seven games but made it to the final weekend. His 2011-12 UofL team lost nine games before making it to a Final Four.
The real challenge this season is whether he can get into the minds of players like Mangok Mathiang, Ray Spalding, Anas Mahmoud and Jaylen Johnson. Big guys, long arms, space hogs. Predictably inconsistent, often out of control and spotty at best.
Can he persuade them that they can consistently play defense, make decent passes, catch passes, make layups and free throws? If he were to convince them, could they grasp all the coaching and practice instruction and raise their collective play to new levels of efficiency for as long as three weeks?
Could Donovan Mitchell fall out of love with all the jump shots and the 3-point attempts, keep driving to the basket, and quit disappearing when he misses a few shots? Could Quentin Snider stay out of foul trouble in the first half, not run out of energy, and hit the front end of one-and-one free throw situations?
The UofL coach has said repeatedly that he likes this team, believes this team plays with a lot of energy and incredible heart. If he believed they could somehow win the Atlantic Coast Conference, as he said he did, then he still thinks they’re capable of even bigger things.
Seems like a tall order in many respects but Pitino has done more with much less talent, getting players to buy into his vision for them, inspiring them to sometimes achieve the unachievable.
Pitino is getting into their minds right now, confirming that they are as good or better than their No. 2 seeding, raising his expectations along with theirs. It’s what Pitino does, and it works just often enough to not be surprised when it happens.