BOZICH | Pitino has Louisville back from the brink to the brink - WDRB 41 Louisville News

BOZICH | Pitino has Louisville back from the brink to the brink of the Final Four

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SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WDRB) – You want to know what it's like to play for Rick Pitino and how Pitino has taken a team that sometimes looks as if it has flunked Shooting 101 within 40 minutes of the Final Four?

Terry Rozier is glad you asked.

Because he has wonderful stories. A story about the day that Rozier was performing so poorly that Pitino stopped practice to advise Rozier that he was sending him home to Cleveland.

Why?

“To sell ice cream,” Rozier said.

Evidently Pitino saw sales potential in Rozier. The coach later told Rozier that his career ceiling was selling tickets for the Kentucky Derby.

“The guy is crazy but I looked at it as a challenge,” Rozier said.

Put the milk shakes and first Saturday in May on hold. Rozier, obviously, is still around, leading the University of Louisville team that will play Michigan State at 2:20 p.m. Sunday in the NCAA Tournament East Regional championship game.

The Cards have gone from season on the brink (back-to-back losses to North Carolina State and Syracuse in mid-February) to the brink of the Final Four. Runs like this run explain why Pitino, 62, made the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame two years ago.

“It doesn't stop with him,” Rozier said. “There are so many moments.

“One time (last season) he kicked Russ (Smith) off the team during the game. Russ was trying to look over in the huddle and he was like, ‘No, Russ, you're not on this team.' He was blocking him out when he was trying to look at the play.”

On the eve of playing for a Final Four trip that nobody was predicting, it is wise to understand all the ways Pitino has prodded, pushed, encouraged, criticized, shaken and stirred 27 victories out of a team that can play Test-Pattern offense -- and then lost its third-leading scorer (the dismissed Chris Jones) before the serious basketball began.

You don't have to burrow far into the numbers to uncover evidence that Louisville should not be one victory from becoming the eighth Pitino team to bounce into the Final Four.

Just as it's been all season, the Cardinals have only four players averaging more than 5 points per game.

Seven teams that made the Elite Eight rank in the Top 13 nationally in offensive efficiency (points per possession) according to Ken Pomeroy's numbers. Michigan State is the seventh team in that group, ranked 13th – and Louisville is 51 spots behind the Spartans.

But here the Cardinals sit – with victories over UC-Irvine (a 13 seed), Northern Iowa (five seed) and North Carolina State (eight seed). They have generated their first three-game winning streak since Jones was dismissed Feb. 22.

If you trust the seeding in the bracket (this tournament has mostly followed form with two No. 1 seeds already qualified for the Final Four), Louisville should advance to Indianapolis because Michigan State is seeded seventh in the regional.

Pitino has had his share of push-button teams –- the 1996 and 1997 Kentucky squads as well as the teams he built at Louisville in 2009 and 2013.

But not this group. Not with its 30.6 percent three-point shooting percentage and its rebounding edge of less than three per games.

Pitino has been forced to scramble with this team as furiously as he worked that 1987 Providence squad or the 1992 Unforgettables at Kentucky. Some guys he questions. Some he hugs.

“He's the same coach,” said Wayne Turner, who played for Pitino at UK and now serves as U of L's assistant strength coach. “He's just a little wiser … He's adjusted to the culture of the players now.”

If Rozier received the warning that he'd be selling ice cream or Derby tickets, Quentin Snider, Louisville's freshman point guard, was told by Pitino that he was primed to excel when Snider took over from Jones about five weeks ago.

Excel Snider has.

If you check Snider's numbers during the NCAA Tournament, you'll notice that he's averaging 13.3 points per game, making nearly 39 percent of his three-point shots and turned the ball over twice in 109 minutes.

“When coach put me in the lineup, he told me he had great confidence in me and that he knew I could do the job,” Snider said. “That really helped me.”

Montrezl Harrell is Louisville's best all-around player, a guy the Cardinals will ask to outplay Michigan State star Branden Dawson Sunday. Like Rozier, Harrell will play in the NBA. Unlike Rozier, Harrell has not heard his coach tell him that he'll be selling ice cream one day.

Harrell is as self-motivated as any guy Pitino has coached at Louisville. I asked him to share the most important motivational button Pitino pushed with him.

“At one point in my sophomore year where I felt like I really wasn't playing too well he called me into his office and he talked to me and was telling me old stories about players than he had in the past,” Harrell said.

“He started talking to me and he was explaining to me that he loved me like I was one of his own sons.

“Just hearing that from your head coach and knowing that he cares about you even more so off the basketball court and how things were going on at home because I was really dealing with a tough family situation back home.

“Just seeing how involved he was with that and noticing all the little things about you, it's just great.”

So it goes. The Cards are down one starter. The Cards can't shoot the way an Elite Eight team is supposed to shoot. The Cards aren't especially fearsome on the glass.

But with Rick Pitino pushing, prodding and stomping, the Cards are one game from the NCAA Final Four.

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