Louisville guard Peyton Siva sauntered up to a podium at the front of a room on the ninth floor of the ritzy New York Athletic Club. Before he addressed the Big East men’s basketball media day assembly, he unfolded a single blank note card.
“I wrote a very long speech today, as you can see,” Siva said, eliciting laughter from the reporters, coaches and fellow players in attendance.
The conference’s Preseason Player of the Year, Siva may have been in a playful mood as he worked the crowd before the day’s festivities began. But one thing that’s no joke is his Cardinals team, which is picked to win the Big East one year after making its first Final Four appearance since 2005.
Led by the senior Siva and fellow preseason first-team All-Big East selection, center Gorgui Dieng, Louisville has one of the deepest rosters in the country. According to many observers, the Cardinals have their best shot at a national championship since the school’s last title in 1986.
You want pressure? That’s pressure. And it’s not exactly welcome in the Louisville locker room — though it’s certainly better than the alternative.
“I hate it,” Siva acknowledged later, sitting a table in the corner of the room, near a window overlooking Central Park’s browning fall foliage.
“If you’re not No. 1, you’re like, ‘Man, we should be No. 1,’ but when you are No. 1, it’s like, ‘Oh, God.’ It’s like a blessing and a curse. It’s fun to have it and be recognized for it, but on the other hand, everybody’s going to be gunning for you.”
In addition to their No. 1 ranking in the Big East, the Cardinals are ranked No. 2 in the first USA Today Coaches poll, putting them behind Indiana and ahead of state rival Kentucky. They also figure to be near the top of the Associated Press poll when it’s released later this month.
But according to Louisville coach Rick Pitino, rankings don’t make much difference when a team steps on the court — which is to say all contenders are treated the same by upset-minded opponents.
“Whether you’re No. 1, 2 or 3, it doesn’t really matter,” Pitino said. “You know you’re highly ranked, and you’re going to have a target on your back.”
Pitino would know. The 60-year-old coach, now entering his 12th season with Louisville, has reached six Final Fours with three schools, including a national championship with Kentucky in 1996. He has coached six teams to 30-win seasons. He understands what winning a championship requires, so dealing with the expectation for greatness has become second nature — as has preparing for every opponent’s best shot.
The first to get a crack at Louisville this season, on Nov. 11, will be Manhattan College. The Jaspers are coached by Steve Masiello, a former Pitino assistant at Louisville and a point guard at Kentucky during Pitino’s last season there (1996-97).
“For a guy like Stevie, who has a very, very good basketball team, I know his speech that he’s giving his players,” Pitino said. “Well, that speech is going to be said over and over and over, so we, emotionally, must be ready for that.”
Later in the non-conference schedule, well before a trip to Memphis or a home game against Kentucky, Louisville will travel to the Bahamas for the Battle for Atlantis tournament. That field includes such ranked teams as Duke and Missouri.
Pitino points to last year’s Duke and Missouri squads, each No. 2 seeds who were knocked out by 15 seeds in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, as cautionary tales for his own club. He uses them as examples of what can happen when a team and its fans get ahead of themselves.
“It would be awesome for Louisville (to win a championship); it’s been a long time,” Pitino said, almost defensively. “But I just don’t think you could ever prepare to win a title. I think you prepare to win the next game.”
In addition to honing the talent on his roster, Pitino is preaching humility as a harbinger for success as the season plays out. So far it seems to be working.
“A lot of people get content and satisfied with being No. 1 and feel like the games are just going to be given to us,” Siva said. “And that’s my job as captain this year, to let them know that we reached No. 4 last year and then we dropped out of the Top 25 when we lost our last four out of six games.”
Added Dieng: “Some people are like, ‘Oh, we’re going to go (to the Final Four) again this year,’ but it’s not going to be like that. We’re not going to surprise anyone this year. Everybody’s going to be ready for us and give us their best, so we need to be ready to play every single night. That’s the only way to win it all.”
With players like Dieng and Siva — whom Pitino calls one of the top-five point guards in the nation — helping deliver his message of modesty, Pitino seems to be putting his players in a hungry frame of mind as the season approaches. But how successful the Cardinals turn out to be will depend on how well that message sticks.
“If they believe what they read, they’re going to fall into the trap,” Pitino said. “If we can get every single guy on this team to stay humble, then we’re going to have a heck of a year.”