Posted by Matt Jones
After two months of fighting it, I grudgingly come to praise Rick Pitino’s coaching performance this season in Louisville. Believe me, all of my natural tendencies are to say that Pitino’s team has had success due to a combination of weak scheduling and fortuitous breaks in close games. But with Saturday’s win on the road against UCONN, I can no longer deny it. Rick Pitino is doing the best work of his Louisville career this season.
This edition of the Cardinals does not have the roster one would, or should, expect from a Rick Pitino team. There is not one player that has a certain NBA future and arguably the one with the most talent, Terrence Jennings, has consistently underachieved. The Cards are soft as butter inside and when they match up with most of the top teams in the Big East, they look vastly undermanned at nearly every position.
But this team has a moxie and toughness that recalls Rick Pitino’s Providence and early Kentucky teams. They hustle after every loose ball, play a tenacious brand of defense that gives their opponents fits and as shown against UCONN on Saturday, have a never-say-die attitude that allows them to remain in games long after they should have been eliminated.
Already in the Big East this season, Louisville has come back from an 18 point deficit with 5:44 left against Marquette to steal a victory, but amazingly what happened against UCONN is more impressive. Down by two late in regulation, Peyton Siva (who just Wednesday added a game winner against West Virginia to his resume) weaved into the lane, driving by a host of UCONN defenders before squeaking in a game-tying layup. Then, down five with under a minute left in the first overtime, the Cards scrapped back with two late three pointers and once again saw Siva finish a clutch drive to send the game to a second overtime. In the unfamiliar setting of protecting a late lead in the second overtime, Louisville pressured UCONN into a desperation Kemba Walker thirty footer miss before stealing the most important win of the season.
It has been a trying few months for Pitino and the specifics of his difficulties often seem to be worn on his face every game. But his team has the youthful energy of the best of Pitino we remember over the last 25 years. Attacking the basket, dishing to open teammates and playing with an unselfish enthusiasm that as put a spring in Pitino’s step all season, makes the Cardinals a fun team to watch perform. They are capable of producing a dud every now and then, but they are also able to win games, in which from a talent perspective, they have no business even competing.
When I watch Louisville play, I continue to shake my head and wonder how the program has so little top-flight talent and what Pitino has been doing on the recruiting trail over the last three years. But then when the game gets to its closing moments and the team with the most poise and guts shines over the one with the better talent, I see Louisville grinding out another big win. None have been bigger than Saturday’s over UCONN and it is time for even Rick Pitino’s biggest critic to stand on the side and applaud what he has done this season.