- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2009

LOUISVILLE, KY. (AP) - Andre McGee had a piece of pasta about halfway down his throat on Sunday night when the Louisville senior guard saw the familiar Cardinals logo flash across the television screen just seconds into the NCAA tournament selection show.

“I was actually eating and almost choked because they said our name first,” McGee said. “I remember a couple years ago I didn’t think we were actually going to the tournament because we were called last. To hear us called early, it felt good. It was a total shock to me.”

McGee wasn’t the only one.

Louisville’s impressive run to the Big East regular season and conference tournament titles _ one that earned the Cardinals the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament _ hardly seemed possible three months ago, when the Cardinals kept finding ways to lose to seemingly lesser opponents.

Coach Rick Pitino knows most NCAA tournament resumes aren’t built around losses to Western Kentucky, Minnesota and UNLV. And almost none feature a 33-point blowout loss in the middle of the conference season like the one the Cardinals suffered against Notre Dame on Feb. 12, one McGee even admits now is “embarrassing.”

Yet while the experts _ the ones Pitino has jokingly dubbed members of the “microwave society” because of their constant need to move a team’s stock up or down based on 40 good (or bad) minutes _ started barking about how the nation’s preseason No. 3 team was overrated, the only coach to lead three different programs to the Final Four simply went back to work.

“We had a plan from the beginning, we stuck to it and we didn’t deviate from it and it’s helped us immensely,” Pitino said. “There was never any overconfidence on where we were ranked earlier in the season and there was never any panic when we had some bad games. There was just ‘give credit to your opponent and move on.’”

Nobody has moved on quite like the Cardinals, who have developed an acute sense of short-term memory loss. Setbacks are brushed aside like lint on one of Pitino’s immaculately tailored suits.

Louisville has rolled to 20 wins in its past 22 games behind the kind of frenetic defensive pressure that’s become the trademark of Pitino’s best teams. The Cardinals don’t necessarily use their fullcourt press to force opponents into turnovers as much as they use it to simply wear them down.

Pitino has approached the season the same way, knowing the lessons of November and December would eventually pay off in March.

Sure, he might have switched things up because of injury or some off-the-court problems. This team, however, has been healthy and largely drama-free.

“Why would we deviate when things, we think, are going well?” he said. “There were no distractions for us except for the other team beating us.”

Now, even those distractions are gone.

Pitino thinks his team’s renewed dedication in practice helped them bounce back. He remembers being so impressed by the way his 1996 national championship team at Kentucky ran through its drills that he would have paid to watch.

While he knows his current team is no match for that NBA-talent laden squad _ Pitino noticed an uptick in intensity after the last-second home loss to UNLV on Dec. 31 that signaled the start of Louisville’s turnaround.

“There was nothing special about our practices, and then they started getting better and better and better and my confidence would rise a little bit,” he said.

Slowly the Cardinals started playing like the team Morehead State coach Donnie Tyndall saw during a visit to Louisville’s sparkling practice center last fall. Pitino invited Tyndall and his staff to watch the Cardinals drill, and Tyndall had little doubt about Louisville’s ability. If he did, they were erased when Louisville got a 79-41 win over the Eagles on Nov. 22.

“You know that when he would get his guys to buy in, that they had a real chance to be good,” said Tyndall, whose team faces Alabama State on Tuesday night, with the winner getting the Cardinals on Friday. “We caught ‘em on opening night. They had a couple bumps in the road after that, but I knew they’d just be bumps.”

So did Pitino, though he wondered if the bumps would end up costing the Cardinals a high seed in the NCAAs. Or at least that’s what he wanted the “microwave society” to think.

“I never wavered until I met you (reporters) each week,” Pitino said with a laugh. “Your questions put a seed of doubt in my mind.”

He’s kidding of course. He can now that his team has found itself atop the heap for once. Pitino will try to keep the Cardinals there over the next three grueling weeks. Just don’t expect him to make reservations for Detroit early. For now, he’ll leave that to the people who counted the Cardinals out months ago.

“You still have to play the game,” he said. “Sometimes the No. 1 seeds hold up. Sometimes they don’t hold up. I’ve seen it both ways.”



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