Few people thought the University of Louisville basketball team had a shot against Virginia this season. No one who knows Rick Pitino, however, was shocked that he was able to get the win, or that the winning shot was made by an unlikely player. He had his players prepared.
Even fewer people believe UofL has a shot at capturing its first Atlantic Coast Conference tournament this week. But Pitino lives for these opportunities, always setting his sights for the upper limits, the tougher the competition the better.
“We could possibly play North Carolina, Virginia and Duke if we were to be successful and get to the finals,” he said during his Monday press conference. “That, in itself, really, really has got me very excited, because that’s about as good as it gets.”
Louisville is 2-3 against the three schools this season. splitting with North Carolina with a one-point loss at Chapel Hill and a 10-point win at home, splitting with Virginia, a five-point loss in Charlottesville and two-point win at home, and an 11-point loss to Duke on a bad shooting day at the KFC Yum! Center.
The Cardinals have already proven they can play with the ACC’s best. A few bounces, a couple of shots, some key rebounds and officiating calls affecting the outcomes, as always. Could have been better or worse, but competitive nevertheless, always something upon which to build and improve.
Pitino’s system, as difficult as it is to comprehend, is designed for March runs. He has faced greater odds going into this year’s post season. His 2011-12 team, for example, was 22-9 going into post-season play, but reeled off eight straight wins, winning the Big East Tournament and getting to the Final Four before losing in New Orleans. A Final Four appearance was the last thing anyone expected from that team.
Whatever this team’s weaknesses, UofL has two future NBA players in the starting lineup in Montrezl Harrell and Terry Rozier. While refining their personal skills, Pitino should have convinced both of them by now that their professional prospects are enhanced by embracing the team approach.
Pitino lives for this time of year, unparalleled as a motivator, able to get his players, regardless of perceived basket I.Q., skill levels and experience, to buy into his system. He does that quite well, having participated in the NCAA tournament 19 times, compiling a 51-17 won-lost record, seven Final Fours with three different schools and two national championships.
Success this year could be one of his greatest challenges, given the calibre of some potential opponents. But no one will be too shocked if Pitino finds his way back to Indianapolis.