Rick Pitino’s pre-tourney goal for his team took time to set in. Seven minutes and 19 seconds, to be exact.
The Louisville Cardinals’ head coach, an ultra-successful veteran of Big Dance nuances and spotlights, entered the 2017 NCAA tournament with a unique challenge. Hit with a self-imposed postseason ban last season, Pitino’s second-seeded group entered the field tested by one of the nation’s most difficult schedules but ultimately inexperienced in the tournament’s win-or-go-home setting. The Cardinals’ leading returning scorer, Quentin Snider, averaged just 9.4 points per game after the departures of Damion Lee, Trey Lewis and Chinanu Onuaku.
“When I coached the ’96 (national championship) team at Kentucky, the most important thing was to just keep them grounded and humble because I felt the only way we could lose with that team was to beat themselves,” Pitino said prior to his team’s tourney opener against 15-seed Jacksonville State. “With the 2013 (Louisville) team that won a championship, I felt we had to confuse people with our defenses. So every team brings different things to the table.
“This team is far different than any team I’ve coached.”
Pitino’s challenge for his current roster: Relax.
That took some time against the Ohio Valley Conference champions.
“Show you how inexperienced we are,” Pitino joked, “one of my players said there’s a lady in the huddle stealing our plays.” His player was referencing the TV broadcast’s reporter, Tracy Wolfson.
The Cardinals stumbled out of the gate on Friday afternoon, needing those seven minutes and 19 seconds before scoring on back-to-back possessions, two jumpers from Deng Adel and Ray Spalding. Up to that point, Jacksonville State held the early 10-4 advantage; Louisville was able to take the lead for good at the six-minute mark and hold the 15-seed at arms’ length the rest of the way, but the cold shooting underscored two strengths of this Cardinals roster: defense and offensive rebounding.
The fact that a Pitino-coached team excels on the defensive end is old news by now. The Cardinals throw myriad pressure-cooked looks at opponents until they crack. Louisville has ranked top-10 in defensive efficiency for seven straight seasons. Even as Jacksonville State forward Norbertas Giga caught fire (30 points, nine rebounds), the Cardinals forced 14 turnovers, blocked five shots and allowed just eight free-throw attempts. Pitino made it clear that Michigan’s high-powered offense provides an entirely different challenge in the Round of 32 — “We’re playing the Golden State Warriors on Sunday.” — but, at the very least, Louisville can once again depend on preventing baskets.
The Cardinals’ cold shooting was not an anomaly, though. This is a roster that struggles from the floor at times. Louisville posted a 51.4 effective shooting percentage this season, 146th nationally and worst among the tournament’s top 12 seeds.
The athletic group, led in scoring by Snider, Adel and standout sophomore wing Donovan Mitchell, has been able to counteract its spotty shooting by taking care of the basketball and hitting the offensive glass — ranking top-20 nationally in turnover rate and offensive rebounding percentage. Both strengths showed up against Jacksonville State. The Cardinals committed just six turnovers and dominated the Gamecocks on the glass, logging 16 offensive rebounds for 24 second-chance points.
“(Coach Pitino has) made a big point of us just crashing the glass offensively all the time, 90 percent of the time,” Louisville big man Mangok Mathiang said. “It’s worked out a lot for us today. I wasn’t grabbing a lot of them, but I was tipping some of them out for our guards to actually give us a second chance. … Every time we go to the glass offensively, it’s very hard to guard us.”
A similar performance could be necessary against a Michigan team that hit the 90-point mark on Friday. (Or, Pitino’s words, Warriors numbers.)
The Wolverines force a decent amount of turnovers, but they rank as one of the worst defensive rebounding teams still alive in the tournament. Opponents create extra possessions on nearly 30 percent of their missed shots against the Big Ten champs.
One of the best Round of 32 matchups promises to present a clash of styles and strengths. The Cardinals will need theirs to come through on Sunday — and perhaps “relax” a little earlier than midway through the first half.
“It will be the toughest second round matchup I’ve had since I’ve been in this business,” Pitino said. “They’re a great basketball team. I’ve seen them in person lose to my son (Minnesota coach Richard Pitino). But since that point, seeing them in person, they are an entirely different basketball team. And they’re lethal, and they’re on a great run right now.”