LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Rick Pitino's desk calendar says October, but his team's practice performance has a November kind of feel. And the coach likes it.
Yes, he sees the same red flags as everyone else when he looks at the stat sheet and sees 5-for-35 three-point shooting. But then again, shooting is often the last thing Pitino is worried about when judging his team's merits. Check the stat sheet and you'll see that he took a team that shot less than 32 percent from beyond the arc to the Final Four last season. Check again and you'll see that the team that won it all needed only 5.6 three-pointers per game.
If you're good enough on the front line, you don't have to worry so much at the three-point line. And after Saturday's scrimmage, Pitino came away feeling pretty good, and still felt good on Monday afternoon.
"For having had one practice, we looked like we'd been practicing for a month," Pitino said. "We're not a great shooting team, that's evident. So what we've got to do is create a lot of easy shots. You've got to do that with your defense and executing on offense. Luke Hancock is a key because he can shoot. He's got to be in there. But these guys, we did practice what you're allowed to over the summer, but this team looked on Day 1 like we were three weeks into practice. That's a pretty darn good team."
The other numbers that jump off the stat sheet belonged to Chane Behanan. The sophomore had 24 points and 22 rebounds.
"And the thing that made Chane's performance so impressive is he's going against a good basketball payer in Montrezl Harrell," Pitino said.
Pitino's expression belies his excitement about Behanan. But he's being careful. Behanan is a caged tiger when he's battling upstream. It's when things are going well that he gets in trouble. Don't expect to hear much from him in the way of interviews in the early going. Pitino says he plans to relieve Behanan of his interview responsibilities during the first semester -- not as a punishment, but as an exercise in focus.
It's been a little bit different kind of preseason for Pitino. In addition to the expectations -- which are nothing new for him, but they do present his players with a different challenge -- Pitino is trying to get his team up to speed more quickly. In past seasons, he'd install his entire system, then focus on areas where the team needed help to try to bring them up to speed. The goal was that everything would be operating at an A-level by February in time for the tournament.
This season, it's different. The schedule is tougher, the expectations are higher and the ramifications for a No. 1 seed are as high in December as they are in February, in some ways.
"We've got to be much more ready earlier in the season," Pitino said. "Even though we were 12-0 last year, we're not going to have the luxury of the home court. We also won a lot of close games, Vanderbilt, even Charleston. We've got to be ready physically for the challenge right away. Manhattan is going to give it to us."
And Pitino is off and running, already breaking down the difficulties of Game 1, when former assistant Steve Masiello brings Manhattan to town on Nov. 11.
"Steve worked for me for so long," Pitino said. "He knows how hard we prepare. He wanted to get me the first game because he knows I won't have anything on him. If he plays the second I'll have the first to prepare. He wanted the first game. It was the perfect scenario for him. He knows it'll drive me nuts not to have things on him. So what I've got to do is take him out of all things by junking up the game."
He might not have much on Manhattan, but he has good early impressions of his own team.
"We're a team with great quickness, great athleticism, and we play really hard," Pitino said. "I think with any team you can pick out the blemish. You can say they don't guard real well or whatever. What we've got to do is improve our weaknesses by understanding our strengths."
Pitino expects point guard play to be one of those strengths:
"Peyton's playing his best basketball since he's been here," Pitino said. "He's really improved his jump shot because he worked on his balance. He always falls down going in, on a jump shot you have to be balanced. He's worked real hard on keeping the ball in front, and staying balanced when he goes up. And he's a good shooter when he's balanced.
"I walked away from that scrimmage saying, we've got a top 5 point guard in America, and a humble Chane Behanan is one of the best in the game, a person who gets full of himself is just an everyday player. My job is to keep him from having too high a self-esteem."
Keeping the expectations of everyone else from flying sky high, however, might be a losing battle.
Copyright 2012 WDRB News. All rights reserved.
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