John Clay: Testy Rick Pitino knows Louisville needs work

Christmas practice might be in the cards

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 24, 2011 

  • NCAA TOURNAMENT

    Louisville vs. Wichita State/Kentucky winner

    When: TBA
    Where: Indianapolis
    Radio: WMKJ-FM 105.5 Lexington
    TV: TBA
    Records: Louisville 31-5 (15-3 AAC)

LOUISVILLE — So maybe the reason Louisville basketball is working out on Christmas Day is because it needs the practice.

Not that the Cardinals are confirming they are practicing on Sunday, mind you.

"We're going to take some time off," said U of L Coach Rick Pitino on Friday night after his team struggled to beat Western Kentucky 70-60 before 22,150 at the Yum Center.

Question: How much time?

"That's none of your business," shot back the testy coach.

But then maybe if his team had played with the same fire Pitino showed in the post-game presser, there wouldn't be the need for such queries.

Point guard Peyton Siva had more turnovers (six) than points (four). Starting forward Chane Behanan finished with a zero in the scoring column, missing all four of his shots.

Question: Did Behanan's problems have anything to do with his being from Bowling Green and playing against some players he knew from high school?

"Next question," said Pitino. "Anyone have an intelligent question?"

Maybe everyone is stressed out with the holidays coming.

Then again, it was that kind of night by the banks of the Ohio River. Western Kentucky, a team that had just lost by 13 at home to Furman, whose embattled coach, Ken McDonald, has his job security in question, led 22-9 out of the gate.

When Louisville rallied to take a 37-34 lead at halftime, the Hilltoppers went on a 10-0 run to start the second half and take a 44-37 lead. When George Fant scored an inside basket with 12:11 remaining, the 25-point underdogs held an eight-point lead, 47-39.

Thankfully, for the home team, Russ Smith rode to the rescue. The sophomore guard scored 13 points in less than seven minutes.

"He just has a mind-set to score," said Western's Derrick Gordon, a New Jersey native who has known Smith, a New York native, since high school. "He just has an attack-mode mind-set."

"He has some qualities I haven't seen before," said Pitino. "He just takes off and goes and gets there without creating an offensive foul for himself. ... And at 6-foot, he can get a rebound. And you know, where Russ grew up you can see why he doesn't have much fear. He was happy just to get home at night."

Smith's scoring spurt sparked a 14-0 Louisville run that took the fourth-ranked Cardinals to their 12th-straight win without a loss.

"I don't have to tell you guys we didn't play good basketball tonight," said Pitino. "But we haven't been playing good basketball for three games. We started out playing real good. We're giving unbelievable effort to win. Four games we should have gone down, but the effort's so great we're winning."

Siva is having a hard time keeping his balance, Pitino said.

"That's something we've seen in the past," said the coach of his point guard, who was 2-for-7 from the floor and often out of control. "We've got to get him back on his game right now. He's had a couple of bad nights."

After scoring 12 points in the first half, Kyle Kuric managed just three in the second. Rakeem Buckles made some questionable plays down the stretch. And their teammates, complained the coach, are too busy watching Gorgui Dieng get all the rebounds. The sophomore center had 13 points and 15 boards.

This isn't a good time for the Cards to be playing less than their best. Forget that U of L has that highly anticipated game at Kentucky on New Year's Eve, Pitino's club faces a tough Georgetown team in their Big East opener on Wednesday night.

Meanwhile, UK Coach John Calipari seemed to poke at the Cards on Thursday when he talked about giving his players Christmas off while other schools are practicing on Christmas day.

But the way Louisville played Friday, maybe the Cards could use the work.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com.

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