CRAWFORD | Cards looking to pick up the pace in NCAA Tournament - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Cards looking to pick up the pace in NCAA Tournament opener

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Rick Pitino talks with his players during Thursday's public shootaround at Key Arena in Seattle. WDRB photo by John Lewis. Rick Pitino talks with his players during Thursday's public shootaround at Key Arena in Seattle. WDRB photo by John Lewis.
Louisville freshman Jaylen Johnson could see increased playing time after recent strides in practice. WDRB photo by Eric Crawford. Louisville freshman Jaylen Johnson could see increased playing time after recent strides in practice. WDRB photo by Eric Crawford.
Rick Pitino makes a point during the team's public shootaround in Seattle on Thursday. WDRB photo by Eric Crawford. Rick Pitino makes a point during the team's public shootaround in Seattle on Thursday. WDRB photo by Eric Crawford.
SEATTLE (WDRB) — The comparisons are inevitable. In 2012, the University of Louisville basketball program was listing badly heading into the postseason. It had little offense to speak of, and had lost four of its final six games.

But that team put together an improbable run to the Big East Tournament championship and then was sent to the West Region where it scrapped its way to the Final Four.

Could it happen similarly for this season's U of L team, another offensively challenged group?

Cardinals' coach Rick Pitino acknowledged it's a nice thought, but said he wouldn't compare the teams.

“The statistics are similar. I don't think the teams are,” Pitino said Thursday in his pregame news conference before his No. 4 seeded Cardinals (24-8) face No. 13 seed UC Irvine in an East Regional opener in Seattle's Key Arena.

“That (2012) team probably forced more turnovers and we had a great shooter in Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith was a very good shooter as well,” he said. “I think this team has much more size. They were much better passers and shooters (in 2012). So all we do is prepare.”

CRAWFORD | NCAA's tallest player poses big challenge for Louisville

If there was a theme for this U of L team heading into its first round matchup, it was this: Get moving.

The Cardinals say they want to press the pace against UC Irvine and their taller lineup, particularly 7-6 center Mamadou Ndiaye. Pitino is hoping his team can get active, create offense from its defense and get its press on against a UCI team that has taken good care of the ball with single-digit turnover totals in six of its past nine games.

Toward that end, Pitino has tinkered with smaller lineups in the extended practice sessions since his team's first-round loss to North Carolina in the ACC Tournament last Thursday. He gave star forward Montrezl Harrell two full days off to rest, while the rest of the team went double-sessions. He says he's ready to use freshman power forward Jaylen Johnson, perhaps in a smaller lineup with Harrell, though probably not in this game against a much larger opponent.

“I just changed my mindset,” Johnson said. “I've been talking to my mom so much, and she just kept telling me, ‘Keep your head up. You came from a struggle and go to be a star, then went back to the bench. You'll be back again. Keep your head up. Listen to coach. Stay prayed up, keep God first. So that's what I've been doing, trying to go hard in practice. Nothing really changed, I just got more aggressive, going harder. At first I was just like, ‘I'm not going to play, so what's the point?' But I had to mature and change that. And that's when I started going hard.”

Whoever plays, Harrell said getting the tempo up should give the Cards an edge against Ndiaye.

“We want to make him run a lot,” Harrell said. “We're a pressing team. We're going to make sure that he plays with the way we get up and down the floor.”

Pitino said he got a sobering message from sports information director Kenny Klein before Thursday's practice at Seattle University. Pitino said he'd been watching all the upsets when Klein informed him that out of 68 teams in the tournament, his ranked 68th in three-point shooting.

“So that's always great for your confidence as a coach going in, with all the upsets going on,” Pitino said. “But I know what he's talking about, because we really have to create a lot of movement, make sure we don't take challenged shots.”

TRANSCRIPT | Rick Pitino NCAA press conference
TRANSCRIPT | UC Irvine Russell Turner NCAA press conference 

But even more than pressing the pace, disrupting with defense and staying away from bad shots, Pitino said the top emphasis i the game from U of L's standpoint will be defensive, and has to be, with the way his team shoots the three — or doesn't shoot it.

“The most important thing is that when you're not a great shooting team is that you defend the three,” Pitino said. “So there's not a great disparity in three-point scoring. For years with the three-point shot all I tried to do was go, you know, make it 21 to like 6 in our favor because we were always great three-point shooting teams. So now it's imperative that we defend the three. That's what we hope to do with Irvine more than anything else is defend the three.”

If there were any chance of the Cards feeling overly secure heading into a game against a team they've heard little about, Pitino said that was wiped out by the early tournament upsets.

“I think what happens, I always get the most jitters as a basketball coach, after 20 times being in the tournament, the first round,” Pitino said. “So what happens is you go into the game and the seed that's higher is certainly confident they're going to win, and the other team that's lower is saying . . . we have got to be so fired up and so perfect in everything we do in order to keep this game close and have a chance of winning. So the emotional levels for both teams is really dramatic. You have to really be on top of your game in the first round.

“I remember one time -- I don't know if it was '96 or '97 -- somebody asked me -- we were the largest favorite in the history of NCAA. I think it was 39 or 40 points. And we're playing San Jose State with Olivier St. Jean, who changed his name, and I think we were down one at halftime. And I walked in with a sick feeling. We wound up winning by 42, 43 points in the second half, but that feeling walking into the locker room at halftime, after that person asked me that question, is tough. So, it's dramatic. The emotional swing is dramatic.”

But it's an emotional journey Pitino loves. He said his practices in the past week have been good ones, and that his team is still improving.

“I have never seen our team so excited,” Pitino said. “We're excited to be in Seattle and we can't wait to play. We know we're playing against a very good team. And obviously from what we have watched today anybody's capable of losing. And so we know we've got our hands full with Irvine. And certainly if we get by that first game, it even gets harder. But this is the best time of year, and I'm thrilled we're a part of it.”

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