(AP) – Louisville coach Rick Pitino insists he expected his 10th-ranked squad to experience growing pains in its first month of Atlantic Coast Conference play.
As the Cardinals (15-3, 3-2) prepare to visit Pittsburgh (13-6, 3-3) on Sunday, Pitino hopes they begin making major progress.
That process includes off-court matters such as junior forward Montrezl Harrell’s surprise announcement that he was no longer a co-captain. The move has generated a lot of intrigue around town, but Pitino downplayed its significance on Friday.
"It’s really not a big deal," he said. "If it was a big deal, I would have announced it. It really wasn’t a big deal; you all (the media) made it be a big deal. And, to be honest with you, he (Harrell) made it a big deal."
The announcement by Harrell, an AP preseason first team All-America selection, leaves senior forward Wayne Blackshear as Louisville’s sole captain. Pitino said Blackshear is capable of the responsibility and joked about the players’ differing leadership styles as a "good-cop/bad-cop" situation with Harrell being "the hammer."
Right now, Pitino’s mission is getting the Cardinals to be more aggressive offensively after last Saturday’s 63-52 home loss to No. 5 Duke. And it’s especially essential that Harrell lead that effort.
Harrell enters Sunday’s game two points shy of becoming the 66th Cardinals player to reach 1,000 in his career. However, since posting a season-best 25 points with 13 rebounds in the ACC opener at Wake Forest, he hasn’t been the inside presence Louisville needs.
Second in scoring to sophomore guard Terry Rozier at 14.9 points to go with 9.2 rebounds per game, Harrell has averaged 9.0 points and 8.3 boards over the past four games. Pitino was pleased with Harrell’s 14 rebounds against Duke but would like to see better shots than his perimeter attempts as Louisville tried to rally from an early hole.
"I think he needs to shoot more 16-footers than 22-footers," Pitino said. "I thought he played very well against Duke in terms of getting on the backboard. He was much more active against Duke than he was (against) North Carolina."
For that matter, Pitino desires wiser shot selection from all his players. The coach has often described this season’s team as more "offensively challenged" than recent squads – which have won 111 games, including an NCAA title, over the past four seasons.
Pitino has lamented the team’s decision-making and occasional struggles against zone defenses. He’s spent part of the weeklong break trying to improve areas such as getting more touches in the paint and creating more fast-break opportunities with the press.
"Like I said, we’ve got a lot of bumps that lie ahead. But this team is getting better and that’s what I look for – improvement. They’re getting better. At all phases of the game, they’re getting better. It’s just, they’re taking baby steps."
Sunday’s game opens a five-game stretch with four on the road for Louisville, which is 8-5 against Pitt overall and 7-5 in Big East play. The Cardinals have gone 3-1 in the Peterson Events Center.
This contest opens a nine-game stretch in which Pitt plays two games apiece against Louisville and Syracuse as well as showdowns with No. 15 North Carolina and No. 2 Virginia.
"I just know we win all our home games from this point on, that’ll be a Louisville win, a North Carolina win and that’ll be a Syracuse win, that’ll be good wins for us," center Michael Young said.
The 6-foot-9 Young can identify with Harrell since he sometimes has to play out of position because of the inconsistent play of big men Joseph Uchebo and Derrick Randall. Young considers himself the more skilled of the two, but understands Harrell makes up for in sheer tenacity whatever he may lack in the finer points of the game.
"He’s just a guy that’s going to go hard every possession," Young said. "He’s going to rebound."