MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WDRB) — I remember when it started. The University of Louisville had just lost on Senior Night to South Florida in the KFC Yum! Center. I had the assignment of covering the Cardinals in the Big East Tournament that year. I made a three-night reservation in New York, packed a few clothes, and figured on a quick return home.
The Cardinals won the championship, I wrote my story and headed straight for the airport. I hadn't even booked a room for that night. I didn't think I'd need one.
From that point on, when the U of L basketball team has packed its road uniforms, it has done so with an element of toughness, and something coach Rick Pitino says is indefinable.
They went on to Portland, Oregon for the NCAA Tournament, and Pitino had equipment manager Vinny Tatum pack enough for the entire team to stay out west. He told his players, "We aren't coming back until we've won the regional." Bob Valvano, with the team's traveling party to do radio, was scrounging consignment stores the entire trip after the Cards went on to Phoenix, where they won a regional title.
From that first 2012 Big East Tournament game till today, the Cardinals are 37-7 away from the KFC Yum! Center. That includes a mark of 18-1 in postseason play, and that includes two Big East titles, two Final Fours, and an NCAA championship.
As the Cards prepared to visit Memphis, just two victories away from completing a perfect road schedule in the American Athletic Conference, I asked several of their veteran players what they thought has made the program so good on the road.
For his own part, Pitino acknowledged that it's more than coincidence. He says his players seem more focused on the road, and seem to embrace the challenge of playing in hostile environments.
"It's funny, we usually play better on the road than at home, and I don't know why that is," Pitino said. ". . . I can't figure that out. I wish I could, because I would do something about it. We take care of business and we play very well on the road. I expect us to play well again."
Sophomore Montrezl Harrell credited chemistry. He said the road forces teams to band together or fall apart.
"When you're out on the court and everybody in the stands is against you, all you've got are the guys on your team and on your bench," Harrell said. "You've got to be able to look your teammates in the eyes and trust them, and that's what this team is always about. You can't fake that you have to believe in who you're playing with and all season we've been working on getting back to that point, and at Cincinnati you saw that and now we'll try to take it on the road again."
Two other U of L veterans, however, had a simpler explanation for the Cardinals' road success. In fact, Luke Hancock's answer was only two words.
Russ Smith agreed. On the road, defense tends to become a premium. Pitino's ability to take away the strengths of opponents becomes more important, according to players.
"When you see the success over several years, it has to be the coaches," Smith said. "I think Coach P is so good at preparing us, and has gotten us to the point where we know if we execute what he is giving us we're going to be in a position to win. And chances are, if we didn't win, we didn't quite execute the way we could have. Or somebody just out played us. Those things happen. Winning on the road is hard, but it's something we thrive on."
Chris Jones is a newcomer, and has gotten a look at the road-warrior culture as an outsider coming in.
"One thing that has impressed me is that these guys never believe we're out of a game," Jones said. "We're going to keep coming. No matter what the score is, we're going to keep coming hard, and a lot of times we're able to make good things happen."
The Cards are hoping for more good things at Memphis. They're coming off a 73-67 loss to the Tigers in the KFC Yum! Center in January, but beat the Tigers 87-78 the last time they visited the FedEx Forum in December of 2012. That was U of L's last trip to Memphis. The trip before that, Darius Washington missed two free throws to give U of L the Conference USA Championship. The Cardinals went on to reach their first Final Four since 1986.
"Memphis is going to be a very tough ballgame," Pitino said. "They're coming off a loss. It's probably going to be a White Out and a sold out crowd. At SMU, it's going to be Senior Night. So were going into a lot of tough games which is what we want. We want these tough games and this tough environment. It's great for us right now. It makes us mentally sharp and physically sharp. We're excited about the challenge."