Louisville scrimmage indicates sense of purpose
There's a time and place for light shows, videos and thumping music.
Just not Saturday at Louisville's first scrimmage.
In fact, the atmosphere at KFC Yum! Center felt more like a midseason Big East Conference game than the public scrimmage it was, and that was no accident given the Cardinals' expectations of winning a national championship.
After losing to in-state rival and eventual national champion Kentucky at last spring's Final Four, Louisville wanted its sense of purpose known from the start. Other than some banter between coach Rick Pitino and his players, it seemed like just another practice and that's how the Cardinals want it.
Having come close last season, they don't want to let anything distract them from the job at hand.
''Everybody really knows what it takes to get to the Final Four,'' senior guard Peyton Siva said, ''and everybody's hungry and everybody's ready to keep on it and move game by game.''
The Cardinals return much of last year's surprising team that went 30-10, won the Big East tournament and reached its ninth Final Four. That includes starting forward Chane Behanan (9.5 points, 7.5 rebounds per game) and center Gorgui Deing (9.1, 9.1).
Siva's back after averaging 9.1 points and 5.6 assists, along with guard Russ Smith and swingman Wayne Blackshear.
Louisville added freshman center Montrezl Harrell (Hargrave Military Academy) to beef up its inside game, and he didn't disappoint by leading the Red team's 74-58 victory with 17 points, 10 rebounds, two steals and a block in 35 minutes.
Asked if he's the piece that could help the Cardinals win their third title, the 6-foot-8, 235-pounder smiled and said, ''hopefully.''
Also new is guard Luke Hancock, eligible after transferring last season from George Mason. He is expected to help Louisville's perimeter game after shooting 30.8 percent last season.
A top-five ranking is expected for Louisville as a result, which explains the Cardinals' singular focus. Having gone so far last season despite injuries, they not only expect another deep run through the NCAA tournament but figure to cross paths with Kentucky along the way, hoping to avenge that semifinal loss.
That's fine by Pitino, but it begins with his team taking every opponent seriously - including Manhattan, Louisville's season-opening opponent on Nov. 11 here.
''We're trying to get ready (because) Manhattan has a heck of a basketball team,'' Pitino said, ''so we want to be ready the first game out. We're working on a lot of things a lot quicker than we normally work on.''
Dieng added, ''we don't care about rankings. We just have to get ready for everybody, or we'll get beat.''
From the start, the Red squad featuring Siva, Dieng, Harrell and Blackshear had more energy than the White team including Behanan, Smith and Hancock. They shot nearly 44 percent in both halves, thrived in transition and held the White team to 30 percent shooting.
Behanan scored a game-high 24 for the White team. Dieng had 12 points and 12 rebounds for the Red team, and Siva added 12 points and six assists.
Overall, though, the Cardinals seemed more focused than expected considering practice officially started Friday. That's not surprising considering their coach's deliberate approach, and Pitino said he saw that intensity during the offseason.
''We're working real hard on execution, even though it's the first day,'' Pitino said. ''We had those two hours a week (before practice officially started) and we used it to work on execution.
''We have three scrimmages and we want to see us improve our shooting, improve our play with each one. Next time out, the shooting, it didn't look good tonight but next time out I want to see it look a lot better. The third one, that's when we put them very close together.''
The other scrimmages are Oct. 21 and 27 at KFC Yum! Center.
Despite the lopsided score, Louisville gave the crowd of 10,355 something to look forward to. Compared to first-practice ''Madness'' events held Friday night across the country, especially Kentucky's celebration that had a rock-concert feel to it, the atmosphere was somewhat low-key.
Other than a pregame watch party for the Cardinals' football victory over Pitt, the fanfare wasn't much different from the regular season. But that's not saying it wasn't loose.
A miked-up Pitino walked the sidelines, occasionally barking out instructions and jabs to both squads. And he was quick to call out players' mental lapses for everybody to hear and laugh at.
No sporting event is complete these days without a Gangnam Style video playing, which got the crowd and some Cardinals moving during a timeout. But once it ended it was back to the matter of preparing to reach this year's Final Four in Atlanta.
And this time, closing the deal.
''It's definitely all business here,'' Siva said. ''I wish we could Midnight Madness and play around, but Coach P is a business-first type of guy. We have our fun after practice, but once we lace it up and step on the court, it's all business and that's how we play.''