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Cards dominate with energy, hard work
The Rupp Arena crowd, all Cardinal red in a state dominated by Kentucky blue, stood and roared its approval. They were applauding not for a bunch of NBA lottery picks thrown together to try and win a championship, but for a group that is what head coach Rick Pitino would vastly prefer: The hardest-working young men in college hoops.
You can’t put a number on energy. You can’t quantify what it was on Saturday night that made Siva and Russ Smith spend nearly every moment of their 32 minutes of playing time sprinting full-throttle up and down the court as the fulcrum of Louisville’s full-court press, which happens to be the greatest single weapon in this season of college basketball.
You can’t look at Louisville’s 82-56 victory over Colorado State — a team Pitino feared quite a bit and called “the toughest second-round opponent that I’ve ever coached against” — and say that Louisville out-intensity’d its opponent by a certain percentage.
But if you could, it would look like this: A Colorado State team that shot close to 50 percent for the game, but got crushed by 26 because the Louisville press kept taking the ball away. A Louisville team that had 15 more field-goal attempts than its opponent. Eleven steals by Louisville compared to zero by Colorado State. Outrebounding the best rebounding team in college basketball. Forcing a ball-control team like Colorado State, the 12th-best team in the nation with only 10.9 turnovers a game, into a season-high 20 turnovers. And Pitino’s most telling statistic from every game, the 45 deflections his Louisville team netted, a number Pitino believes virtually guaranteed victory.
There’s no statistic called adjusted team intensity, but if there were, it would be the only thing you’d have to cite if you wanted to explain why no team is better prepared to cut the nets down on April 8 than Pitino’s frenetic crew.
Instead, we must rely on the eye test. We watch Louisville’s press force Colorado State into a 10-second violation. We watch a Colorado State player dribble the ball off his foot and out of bounds. We watch every Colorado State player tire as the game wears on, just like every team tires against Louisville. We watch Colorado State’s body language as they have to inbound the ball into Louisville’s press, and it says, “Not this. Please, not this again.”
How can a team that’s far less talented than its cross-state rival be not just a far better team than Kentucky, but the best team in college hoops, the closest thing we have to a sure thing in this crazy tournament?
“We get all our energy and fearlessness from Coach,” said Smith, who scored a game-high 27 points. “He drives us every day, and, you know, we let him down, we feel like we’re letting all of us down, each other, the whole Louisville.”
“We’re used to it,” said guard Wayne Blackshear. “We do it every day in practice. We’re used to guarding each other in that type of style of play. We just get out there every day.”
You might think this is just two 20-somethings, sitting next to their coach on a podium and trying to shower him with compliments. But this isn’t just kissing Pitino’s ring. This team might be the glorification of the vision of defensive pressure that Pitino developed in the 1980s under coaching legend Hubie Brown and has refined ever since, one of the best defensive teams in recent college basketball history.
“We caught as well-coached of a team as I’ve ever played against, and I think that’s saying something,” said Colorado State head coach Larry Eustachy, who has been a college assistant or head coach since 1978. “I can’t say enough about Coach Pitino and how he gets his guys to play for 40 minutes. As impressive as I’ve ever seen.”
And this isn’t just a coach that rides his players and rides his players, their fear of his wrath becoming their motivating factor for out-working their opponents. Not at all. Pitino has a formula for making his players the best-conditioned team on the floor that can run their exhausting press all game long.
His practices are run like clockwork — literally. At the beginning of the season he begins practices with 42 minutes of individual instruction. But key in Louisville’s conditioning is that the players aren’t worn out.
By the end of the year, practices have only 28 minutes of individual instruction, and go from 2 hour 20 minute practices to 1 hour 45 minute practices. Just like their full-game press, the Cardinals don’t break in practices. Even if Pitino has to correct a mistake, they don’t stop the action for more than 20 seconds. The practices are run as efficiently as their pressure is during games.
After Louisville’s win secured another Sweet 16 appearance for Pitino — it’ll be his 11th, and so far he’s 10-0 — his opponents looked like they’d been through a meat grinder.
“Just total chaos,” Colorado State forward Greg Smith said. “You see the bodies out there flying around and doing what they do, it’s a lot different (than watching on tape). Some of those guys are just so fast.”
“We just got ambushed,” Eustachy said. “You can’t simulate how they come at you. I thought if we could do certain things, we could hang with them. I really did. You really don’t know how good they are until you have to sit there and watch them come at you, and they just keep coming at you and keep coming at you.”
If they keep pressing like this — and they will — they will keep coming at unfortunate opponents like Colorado State, all the way to Atlanta.
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