Louisville's Luke Hancock drives for two of his career-high 23 points in a 71-63 win over SMU.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- A national championship is a tough
thing to get away from. The banner is always there. At the University of
Louisville, the huge "2013 National Champions" logo is plastered
across the front of the arena, and on everything else.
The team is introduced as the "defending national
For whatever else happens, you become frozen in time a
little bit. Luke Hancock will always be the guy who made four straight threes
and won Most Outstanding Player in the championship game. Russ Smith, Montrezl
Harrell, Wayne Blackshear, even Tim Henderson, all have fingerprints all over
that trophy; they show up in the highlight reel before every game.
After losing to Memphis at home Thursday night, U of L coach
Rick Pitino sensed his players were down, and he could feel the weight of that
championship, as much as anything. Guys were doing things he did not
understand. Russ Smith dribbling into traffic. Luke Hancock dribbling off his
foot. He got his players together and gave them two messages. He talked about
playing with unbridled enthusiasm. And he also told them this:
"Stop trying to live up to last year's
team," he said. "We are not that team. Just be yourself and we are
going to be the best team we are going to be. Then in March we will see who we
are. Stop trying to be last year's team because we are not. That is not a knock
on our abilities. We are just a different basketball team."
His team responded with its best half
of the season against Southern Methodist, holding the Mustangs to 32 percent
shooting in the first half on its way to building a 17-point lead before
holding on for a 71-63 victory.
Pitino went with a small lineup,
starting both Luke Hancock and Wayne Blackshear, to go with Russ Smith, Chris
Jones and Montrezl Harrell. He didn't get to stay with the lineup long,
however, after Blackshear got into early foul trouble.
Still, the Cardinals rotated well,
communicated effectively and gave SMU all kinds of trouble in the first half --
and the Mustangs came into the game ranked No. 2 in NCAA Division I in field
"Their energy was great," SMU coach Larry Brown
said. "They always play hard under Rick. I also thought that we took some
terrible shots - especially the first half. They got us. It happened to us at
Cincinnati. It happened to us at Arkansas; we got to playing too fast. . . . They
play their way better than we play their way. And I thought that was the key to
the whole game."
Two-thirds of U of L's scoring came from two players -- Russ
Smith and Luke Hancock. They had 23 points each, while Harrell added 12 points
and 13 rebounds.
The Cards shot 50 percent (11 of 22 in the second half), but
made only six two-point baskets in the half (along with five threes).
Brown had high praise for Smith after the game, and credited
much of Hancock's scoring to Smith's creating.
"There's something about our sport that
you find out what kids can't do and reasons for guys failing, but I look at
that little kid (Russ Smith) and he's trying to make everybody on his team better."
It's a team, Pitino said, that is
trying. Some are struggling. Blackshear again got into early foul trouble and
couldn't get it going, particularly on defense.
"Just bad basketball," Pitino
said. "No excuse for what he was doing out there tonight. . . . We have to
get Luke playing better defense."
Hancock said Pitino grabbed him in the
hallway and said, "Good job, Luke . . . on offense. ... But you know,
that's an underrated team. They're good. They're extremely well-coached. This
was a very good win for us. We're a good team. We know we can win games. We
just need these defensive lapses not to happen."
I asked him what he thought of Pitino's
notion that this team was trying perhaps too hard to live up to last season's
"We just want to be as good as we
can be. Teams are coming in here like, we're playing the national champions and
we're getting their best shot. And I think some guys, especially young guys,
didn't realize that. I think they thought we were kind of just win by putting
Louisville on our chest. It's not like that. We have to execute every night. .
. . We're a different team than we were last year. Just losing people like
Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng changes you. We just want to be the best team we
can be and hope it takes us on the same road."
Pitino said he wasn't negative at all in
the days following the Memphis loss. He knows that he has to pump his team up
when it's down. Next month, when the schedule weakens, he'll be all over his
team. But right now, in the midst of some tough games, with some injuries --
Chris Jones tweaked his hip and missed most of the second half Sunday -- he's
going to keep prodding, and reminding his players that last year's team had its
struggles, while also reminding them that they're a different group.
"You know they want to do
so well," Pitino said. "You can see the effort's there, but (without
Peyton Siva, Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan) . . . it's just different. I told
them aspire to be as good as them in March. Don't try and be that team now.
We're going to lose some games obviously. We're not going have that record we
had last year. It's going be OK as long as long as we keep getting better and,
come March, we will be a decent basketball team."