Thursday, January 16, 2003

Pitino has Cardinals on fast-forward

In coach's 2nd season, U of L is 10-1 and setting sights on NCAAs

The Associated Press

LOUISVILLE - Louisville coach Rick Pitino didn't expect the Cardinals to become this good this fast. The No.15 Cardinals (10-1, 2-0 Conference USA) have won nine games in a row heading into today's contest at East Carolina (10-3, 1-1). Louisville is off to its best start since the 1996-97 team started 15-1, and is ranked ahead of Pitino's former team, Kentucky, for the first time since February 1994.

"Our guys are going way beyond what I thought they could do this early in the season," said Pitino, in his second year following Denny Crum.

More important to Pitino is Louisville's No.9 ranking in the Rating Percentage Index, a formula that weighs winning percentages and schedule strength, and factors heavily into a team's chances of making the NCAA Tournament.

"The RPI is what counts," Pitino said.

But Pitino is hesitant to put much stock in the team's early success.

"We're not in the class with Arizona, Florida and those teams right now," he said. "That's not saying we don't have the talent to be good. To get to where those teams are, we just need time and experience."

Cincinnati will play Louisville twice this year, Feb. 5 at Louisville and Feb. 22 at Shoemaker Center.

Louisville went 19-13 last season, but Pitino lamented the team's lack of returning talent. So he tapped the New York City area, where he grew up, for recruits and found sharp-shooting freshmen Francisco Garcia and Taquan Dean.

The 6-foot-3 Dean, from Neptune, N.J., is shooting 44.7 percent from 3-point range, which ranks eighth in Conference USA. The 6-7 Garcia, from the Bronx, has hit double-figures in seven of 11 games.

Kentucky transfer Marvin Stone has been another valuable addition. The 6-10 Stone had 16 points and seven rebounds in the Cardinals' 81-63 win over Kentucky on Dec.28. He has struggled lately but is the team's second-leading scorer and rebounder.

The new players complement seniors Reece Gaines and Erik Brown and juniors Ellis Myles and Luke Whitehead.

But Pitino said a more intangible - but no less significant - factor to the winning is the team's attitude.

To reinforce the team concept, Pitino brought a single sheet of statistics to a recent practice. It showed the final stats from Pitino's 1995-96 UK team that won the national championship.

Pitino had heard Gaines raving about Derek Anderson, one of six players on that team who became a first-round NBA draft pick.

"I said, `Tony Delk led the team in scoring; Antoine Walker was next. Derek Anderson, just so you know, averaged nine points per game,'" Pitino said. "All these NBA players averaged seven, eight, nine points a game. And they all became first-round draft choices. Why? Because they were collectively great. No one looked at their stats to determine whether they were great."

The message got through.

"He let us know it's about winning games first. That way, everybody will get recognition," said Whitehead, the team's third-leading scorer. "The message was not to ever be selfish. And since Coach has had so much success, everything he says, we automatically listen to."

The Cardinals have missed the NCAA Tournament two consecutive seasons, the first time that has happened since 1969-71.

Pitino isn't afraid to tell his players they aren't close to being tournament-ready. And they understand.

"We haven't played our best game, and that's the best thing about this," Brown said. "We're making mistakes, but we're still winning games."

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