Friday, February 20, 2004

Pitino: Cards' woes no surprise


Schedule took its toll

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Eight years ago this week, Rick Pitino was the cover subject of a Sports Illustrated story titled "A Man Possessed."

Somewhere during his ill-fated stint with the Boston Celtics came an exorcism.

On Saturday, he will bring to Cincinnati a Louisville team that seems to be unraveling, much like the host Bearcats. Yet Pitino is surprisingly calm, likening this slump to a correction in the market.

"In preseason, I thought we had some good guys coming back but nothing special," he said. "When we went on that run (16-1 to start the season), truly the sum was greater than the parts. They were just playing great. Then we had injuries to two key players, and we took two major steps backward.

"The reason I'm upbeat is, if you look at the big picture, the guys have done remarkably well. I'm really proud of them."

Injuries to Francisco Garcia and Taquan Dean, Louisville's leaders, precipitated this slide of four losses in five games. The latest was a shocker, a 71-46 loss Tuesday at Texas Christian that marked the lowest point total for a Pitino-coached team since 1982, his fourth season at Boston University.

Yet Pitino insisted even when the 10th-ranked Cardinals (17-5, 7-4 Conference USA) were 16-1 that the team wasn't an NCAA title contender.

He predicted a rough schedule would take its toll and said his team - and UC's - was done no favors by C-USA's schedule. Each league team has three "mirror" schools it faces twice, and Louisville's are fellow powers UC, Memphis and Marquette.

Pitino doesn't deny the similarity to last season, when the Cardinals lost five of seven after an 18-1 start. He said this February funk was practically preordained.

"We're a mirror image of last year's team - not as good, because we lost some players - but because last year the same thing happened to us," he said.

"We can't get into Freedom Hall (to practice) in January because of tractor pulls and farming shows. We now go at Charlotte, at Memphis, at Cincinnati, at Marquette, at Texas Christian. People want to know what's wrong with your team. Well, besides the injuries, it's all those 'ats.'

"You can almost look at the schedule and figure out when you're going to get your runs and when you're going to get your tough stretches."

Pitino said he learned three lessons from his struggles with the Celtics: Show patience, don't panic, and stay positive.

He summoned Garcia and Dean to the front of the plane on the trip back from TCU to tell each to relax.

Pitino said Garcia, who injured both ankles, and Dean, who pulled his groin, are out of sync because of the two weeks of practice each missed.

"They feel they're letting the team down, and that's not the case at all," Pitino said.

Louisville still stood No. 16 in the Ratings Percentage Index Thursday, and Pitino figures just one more victory should secure an NCAA Tournament berth - the stated goal at season's start. The Cardinals' defense remains sticky, as it began the week ranked No. 2 nationally in field-goal percentage defense at 37.2 percent.

Pitino said he even feels good physically, improving after his much-discussed Jan. 27 trip to the Cleveland Clinic. He joked that he'd need another test Saturday - a convenient reason to miss a trip to UC, which will want revenge for a 27-point loss at Louisville on Jan. 21.

"I wish I wasn't healthy enough (for Saturday)," he said. "But I am."

E-mail nschmidt@enquirer.com




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