LOUISVILLE — The suspense ended early on the NCAA Tournament Selection Show this year for the Louisville basketball team, as the first segment highlighted Terrence Williams and the Cards as the tourney's No. 1 overall seed.
It was a far cry from selection shows past, when the Cards were either under-seeded or forced to sweat it out until the final bracket.
Pitino flashed back to 2005, when Louisville was expecting a No. 2 seed only to end up as a four en route to the Final Four.
"I remember leaving the restaurant and everybody walking out in disgust," Pitino said. "But (Sunday), all of sudden, T-Will comes on, the action comes on, and all of a sudden, it's us. It was a delayed reaction."
And senior point guard Andre McGee remembers two years ago when the Cards were among the last teams announced as a No. 6 seed playing in Rupp Arena.
"I didn't think we were going to get in," McGee recalled.
Now Louisville goes into the Big Dance as the favorite to cut down the nets April 6 in Detroit.
"I think it's well-earned and well-deserved," Pitino said. "When you consider a great conference like the Big East in its best year ever, it speaks volumes of our accomplishments."
Early in the season, it looked as if the Cards might be sweating out the selection show once again. Louisville, a consensus pre-season top-five pick, stumbled and fumbled its way to losses against Western Kentucky, Minnesota and UNLV, and it needed a late Edgar Sosa three to escape Kentucky. U of L then ripped off nine wins in a row, but a 17-point home loss to Connecticut and a shocking 33-point defeat at Notre Dame raised questions once again.
Despite the struggles, Pitino never wavered from his blueprint. For one, he'd been through it with this team before, as the Cards have struggled out of the gate for the past two seasons before getting things straightened out by March. And unlike those teams, there wasn't an abundance of injuries or off-the-court distractions to deal with.
"We just stuck to our plan," Pitino said. "We didn't deviate, and it helped us immensely. There was never any overconfidence about where we were ranked, and there was no panic when we had bad games."
Things started to come together after the Notre Dame debacle. Pitino said the players made a commitment to be great in practice, something he has noticed in his most successful teams, including his 1996 UK juggernaut that won the national championship.
"I just told them that they weren't practicing hard enough to be a champion," he said. "They weren't dogging it all. They just weren't at a championship level. Our 1996 team was so good because our practices were so good. I would have paid to watch those practices."
Better practices led to better performances by players who had been struggling. Williams was unstoppable at times down the stretch, his typical versatility bolstered by a more reliable jumper. Earl Clark, maddeningly inconsistent for much of the regular season, was a beast in the Big East Tournament, averaging 18 points, nine rebounds and nearly five assists in three games.
Junior guard Jerry Smith also rediscovered his outside shooting touch thanks to the development of an effective head fake and a willingness to take it to the hole.
And reserves such as Preston Knowles and Terrence Jennings settled into their roles: Knowles as a defensive specialist/long-range bomber and Jennings as a longer, slightly more athletic complement to freshman forward Samardo Samuels.
While Louisville seems to be clicking on all cylinders, Pitino isn't taking anything for granted. Louisville is the tourney's No. 1 overall seed but nowhere near the overwhelming favorite that Pitino's '96 team was.
"Sometimes No. 1 seeds hold up, sometimes they don't," Pitino said. "It's wide open. Any of us can get beat. ... Whoever plays and executes the best is going to win. You can't compare the '96 team to this team. It's unfair. Nobody was guessing who was going to win it that year. Thank God I won it."