LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — It was a pretty normal news conference today with University of Louisville coach Rick Pitino, until the subject of his bench came up.


The Cardinals are coming off a game at Miami in which all of their scoring was done by four starters — Terry Rozier, Chris Jones, Montrezl Harrell and Wayne Blackshear.


Rozier, Jones and Harrell each are averaging 35 minutes per game. Blackshear is just behind them at 29 per contest. It's a lot of minutes for a coach who has, for much of his career, used substitutes liberally in a full-court pressing system to wear down opponents.


But as his team heads to No. 2 Virginia this weekend, Pitino went out of his way to say that he's pretty satisfied with the rotation as it has developed.


“This is college basketball. We don't play a hundred games,” he said. “You don't have to play 10 people. I know you guys love the platoon systems, but (laughter), but we don't have to do that. We have more than enough bench.”


According to statistics from
KenPom.com
, U of L's bench is playing 28.4 percent of its minutes this season (264th in Division I). Can a serious team get that little time from its bench players?


Wisconsin's bench this season is playing a lower percentage (28.1). So did the benches of both teams in last season's NCAA championship game (UConn 27.9, UK 23.6). The team U of L beat for the national title in 2013, Michigan, got only 20.4 percent of its minutes from its bench, and Pitino's 2012 Final Four team used its bench far less than his current team — only 18.3 percent of that team's minutes came from reserves, and eventual champion UK got only 21.6 minutes from its reserves.


Bottom line — you can win either way, and keeping your best players on the court longer has been established as a way to win every bit as much as running rotations in.


But it may also mean less margin for error.


The other element involved in questions over U of L's bench is a question over next season. You lose 100 percent of your scoring, it's tough for any program. But Pitino said that he has players developing in practice.


Quote of the year candidate coming:


“We have a decent bench,” Pitino said. “We really do. If I would play them, you would see it.”


Pitino said that Quentin Snider has worked himself into position to compete for more minutes, but that his starters have been so good that he hasn't felt the need to sit them down. Jones, particularly, has shown uncommon stamina.


“It's incredible,” Pitino said. “Terry's is good. Montrezl's is good. Wayne's is very, very good. So they're more than capable.”


What Pitino needs more than a deep bench, he said, is improved offensive play from centers Mangok Mathiang and Chinanu Onuaku.


He said both players show flashes of better offense in practice, but that both have trouble catching the ball, and therefore haven't earned the trust of teammates to throw it to them.


“Do we get a lot out of them scoring wise?” Pitino said. “No. But like Hubie Brown says, if you've got 3 1/2 to 4 scorers in your lineup, you have a good lineup. We more than have that. So, I guess, I don't think our bench is as weak as the questions being asked are. I just think we rely so heavily on our starters, which I think is a great thing.


“Our guys make fun of Chinanu all the time because he always drops the ball,” Pitino added. “But he drops the ball almost 50 percent less than Gorgui Dieng dropped the ball as a freshman. They just don't understand freshmen. The upperclassmen have no tolerance. Montrezl is impatient with these guys. It's unbelievable. He reminds me of 20 years ago when I was coaching. He has no patience for guys dropping the ball or not being in the right place. Thank God he's going to be a player and not a coach. . . . I think Chinanu is getting better. I think Quentin Snider is getting better. I think Wayne Blackshear will be a very good tournament player, because like I said he's having a much better year than statistical things show. I think if Montrezl, Terry and Chris can just play the way they're playing, it would be terrific. And I think that Mangok and Chinanu need to get better.”


Can a team with basically only four scorers win a championship game? It doesn't happen often. Indiana had only four players score in the 1987 NCAA title game against Syracuse. But that team had five scorers average double figures on the season, then a drop-off to 3.8 points to No. 6.


Pitino doesn't need many more minutes from the bench. But history says he does need a few more points. U of L's fifth-leading scorer is Mathiang at 3.9 points per game. It's been since the 1948 that U of L's No. 5 scorer hasn't averaged at least five per game.


Of course, you can work it both ways. The last time U of L had a team dominated this much offensively by its top three scorers, their names were Darrell Griffith, Derek Smith and Wiley Brown. Pitino said he thinks his team has an interesting couple of months ahead -- though he didn't have much interest in taking up the Final Four subject Thursday.


"A month ago, I wouldn't even have -- at the beginning of the year, if you'd have told me we'd be 19-3, I'd have said where do I sign that contract?" Pitino said. "I never thought we'd be close to this record at the beginning of the year. If you watched us practice, I told (sports information director) Kenny (Klein) we're going to really have a tough year. But we just kept getting better and better and better, and we maintained our road toughness. Our only road loss is at the buzzer to North Carolina. We played three Big Ten teams very well, so I'm very pleased where we are right now. To say we're a Final Four class, I wouldn't say so right now."


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