Even for Rick Pitino, the compliment may have been a little over the top.
When the Louisville coach announced the Cardinals had signed forward Mike Marra last year, Pitino didn’t hesitate in calling the 6-foot-5 swingman the best high school shooter he’s ever seen.
That’s high praise from the man who has coached marksmen such as Billy Donovan, Tony Delk and Francisco Garcia. All three were deadeye gunners who led Pitino-coached teams to the Final Four.
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No pressure, right? Well, maybe just a little.
“I would say it’s a little bit of pressure,” Marra said. “But it’s just his opinion. I’m pretty sure he believes it, so that’s good.”
It’s one Pitino stands by even as Marra has struggled to make the adjustment to the college game. He is shooting an abysmal 2 of 17 from 3-point range this season for the 20th-ranked Cardinals (5-1) heading into Saturday’s game against Charlotte.
Pitino’s confidence in Marra’s ability, however, has hardly been shaken by the slow start.
After watching Marra miss all four of his shots in a 76-71 loss to UNLV last weekend, Pitino made it a point to give his prodigy a little boost during a postgame pep talk.
“He still told me in front of the whole team, he said ‘I know your stats are pretty bad right now, but I believe you’re the best shooter in the country, so keep playing on defense and keep shooting,”‘ Marra said.
It’s what the Cardinals need from him, particularly with guards Preston Knowles, Peyton Siva and Jerry Smith battling injuries. And in an 80-48 win over Stetson on Wednesday, Marra finished with six points, four rebounds and three assists in 18 solid minutes.
Sure, Marra didn’t like missing three of his four shots from the field, but he’s not worried about his shot coming around. This isn’t his first slump, it won’t be his last.
Right now, he knows his best way to earn playing time is to do the things Pitino is looking for when the ball isn’t in his hands.
“Being a shooter isn’t necessarily the type of role player that I need to be right now,” he said. “I need to get in and play defense and stuff.”
It’s something Marra admits he rarely did with regularity while playing for Northfield Mt. Hermon School in Massachusetts. He was a scorer, not a defender.
“I could rest on defense then go on offense and do my thing,” Marra said.
And that thing is shoot. And shoot. And shoot.
Marra spent the summer putting up about 700 shots a day in an effort to hone his stroke. The one thing all that practicing didn’t do, however, is prepare him for playing in front of 18,000 people. The biggest crowd he drew during his high school career was a few hundred, tops.
He can feel the energy when he gets on the floor at Freedom Hall, and he can hear the crowd react when he gets the ball. They heard what Pitino said too. They want him to shoot.
He hasn’t exactly delivered yet, perhaps because he’s so eager to knock one down he’s failed to find a rhythm.
“With the crowd and the adrenaline, I’m too excited and I rush,” he said.
The game will slow down eventually. And Pitino isn’t exactly ready to send Marra to the end of the bench until his shot comes around. The coach has barely noticed that Marra is in a slump.
“I don’t really notice too much about the shooting,” he said. “I (am) just happy with his defense. I think in time he’ll mature and he won’t be as nervous.”
Fighting through cold streaks is simply a part of the job.
“It wears on you mentally for sure,” he said. “You’re thinking ‘When am I going to get out of this?”‘
Marra has little doubt things will turn around. If he can keep doing all the other things Pitino is looking for, he knows he’ll keep getting a chance to play.
“To be a good shooter, you can’t remember missing your last shot,” he said. “It’s all about the next one.”