Tuesday, February 11, 2003

Pitino savors latest rebuilding job

Laughing all the way

By Chris Duncan
The Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -Like so many basketball coaches, Rick Pitino has made one stop after another, always ready for the next job. Now at Louisville, he takes time to look around.

Pitino certainly likes what he sees: a No. 2 ranking and the country's longest active winning streak. He listens to the laughter, and it reminds him how much he has changed.

"The biggest mistake I've made in my life is you get so wrapped up in future games, you never really appreciate the journey," he said. "Now, I'm old enough to understand I have to appreciate this right now."

With the Cardinals, Pitino has transformed a fallen program into a winning team, as he did at Boston University, Providence and Kentucky. He is a long way from his NBA days with the Knicks and Celtics, where things did not work out as well.

Louisville (18-1, 8-0 Conference USA) has won 17 straight - the program's longest streak since it won the 1986 NCAA championship. The Cardinals' next game is at Saint Louis on Wednesday.

"The whole thing has caught me offguard," Pitino said. "I'm excited about it, but then I realize it could end tomorrow night."

The fun started long before the Cardinals became the talk of college basketball.

In mid-December, they were unranked with a 2-1 record when they headed to New York, where Pitino grew up, to play Seton Hall. The night before the game, Pitino took his team to a party hosted by Norman and Susan Scott, New York doctors and longtime friends.

A small jazz band was playing, but the Cardinals soon became the main act, serenading the guests.

"We probably laugh more as a team than any team I've ever coached," Pitino said.

And it doesn't stop. Even when he turns serious, he's laughing again before long.

After the Cardinals won 72-69 at Tennessee on Jan. 25, Pitino made an impassioned speech in the locker room. When he was finished, freshman Francisco Garcia approached the coach with mock seriousness. "Coach," he said, "we love you, too."

Pitino burst into laughter.

"I've had more fun coaching this team than I've had in a long, long time," he said after last week's 77-71 win over Cincinnati.

It's not just the victories. Pitino said he would be enjoying this season even if the Cardinals hadn't exceeded his wildest expectations.

But they have.

The turnaround actually began in January 2002. Help arrived from the most unexpected place - Kentucky, the program Pitino restored to prominence from 1989-97.

Disillusioned center Marvin Stone left Lexington less than a week before Pitino's ballyhooed return to Rupp Arena. He said days after the game he wanted to transfer to Louisville.

Pitino was hesitant about accepting him, but assistant coach Mick Cronin talked him into it.

The Cardinals are 14-0 since the 6-foot-10 Stone became eligible in mid-December. Stone, averaging 13 points and eight rebounds, has provided an inside presence that's freed Louisville's shooters. He's also a shot-blocker critical to Pitino's trademark fullcourt pressure.

"We would not be where we are today if it wasn't for him," Pitino said. "We would be exactly what I thought we'd be going into the season - a team fighting on the bubble."

A shrewd move by Pitino helped as well. He started the season hoping to keep senior Reece Gaines, Louisville's leading scorer since Pitino's arrival, at his natural shooting guard position. He wanted to groom one of four players to handle the point.

But Pitino soon realized Gaines was his best point guard, and that's where he put him. Gaines at first resisted the shift but has grown comfortable with the role.

"I realized I can make this team win without scoring a point," Gaines said. "And if all you care about is winning, then you just go out there and make the right plays."

Pitino is impressed with how seamlessly Gaines has made the switch.

"What he's doing is truly masterful, going from a one-dimensional mind-set - scoring - to changing that mind-set to running a team, knowing what plays we're in and just totally changing his mental and physical parts of his game," Pitino said. "He's done it so well."

That move has created minutes for Garcia and fellow freshman Taquan Dean. Both signed to play for Pitino before they even visited Louisville's campus.

The lanky 6-7 Garcia tied a school record with eight 3-pointers in the Cincinnati game Feb. 5. Dean scored 15 points and had five rebounds in a 81-55 win over Houston on Saturday.

Pitino is struck by the lack of ego on his team. No opponent is overlooked, regardless of record. As for the lofty ranking, that's for others to discuss.

"Our respect for our opponents, our humility about getting better each day has been a big asset of ours," he said. "We're all enjoying it a great deal, but the one thing we don't do is get carried away with who we are.

"And that's a darn good, hard-working team that has great potential."

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