John Clay

John Clay: Louisville getting away to get ready for Kentucky

LOUISVILLE — According to Rick Pitino, the best way is to get away.

So the Louisville coach said Tuesday night. His Cardinals had just mauled Missouri State 90-60 at the KFC Yum Center.

Pitino called it the best game his team had played all season, especially on defense. "Brilliant" was one adjective he used. "Spectacular" was another.

Wednesday, the Cards departed on a five-day road trip for Saturday's game at Florida International. NCAA rules have changed. When school is not in session, teams don't have to practice on campus. So Pitino planned double sessions in the Sunshine State. He wants to get ready for FIU. He also wants something else.

Is it a good time to get out of town with Kentucky coming up?

"That's why I did it," Pitino said and the media room laughed at the joke. Yet the more Pitino talked the more it sounded like he wasn't joking.

"We wanted to get away, to get out of town before this Kentucky game, get out," Pitino said when the subject swung back around to the Florida trip. "We know how big a game it is, not only a rivalry game but two teams with a lot of talent and lot of abilities. We just really want to practice, get away from it."

In fact, Pitino said that before Tuesday his defending national champions had turned in their best practices all season.

"We've been spending so much time on free throws it's really frustrating we're not shooting it better," said the coach after his team made just 16 of 30 from the foul line. "But we'll keep on working on it. We'll have a lot of double sessions down there."

Pitino is meshing new parts with old from a team that last year won his second national title. Gone is center Gorgui Dieng and point guard Peyton Siva.

Mangok Mathiang, eight points and six offensive rebounds Tuesday against Missouri State, starts at center. "He's getting better and better," Pitino said. "He just needs to play a lot of basketball. He just hasn't played a whole lot of basketball in his life in an organized fashion."

Guard Chris Jones, a juco transfer, returned after missing time with a sprained wrist. Freshman Terry Rozier is starting at the point. Neither is tall. Both are feisty. Rozier snatched eight rebounds Tuesday after grabbing 10 on Saturday playing Western Kentucky.

"He's very good at it," Pitino said. "He did it in high school, as well. It's nothing I taught him. He just does it."

A Pitino team means a deep team. Chane Behanan is back from suspension. Wayne Blackshear returns as a starter. Montrezl Harrell, the sophomore, collected 17 points and eight boards Tuesday night. Luke Hancock, last season's Final Four MVP, is working his way back into shape after an Achilles injury.

Let us not forget Russ Smith, he of the eight assists on Tuesday. "He didn't play good defense, to be honest, but I'm not going to nitpick," Pitino said. "He's playing spectacular basketball, he really is. He just looks like a different player, a better player."

Truth be told, Pitino had not been happy with the way his team's parts were fitting together. He cited a lack of communication, togetherness. A 47-24 first-half lead Tuesday changed his opinion.

"Before this, we didn't have it," Pitino said. "Like I keeping telling our guys, we're five men on a string with the new rules. Tonight, if somebody gets beat, somebody steps up and switches, somebody rotates to the inside and the string was all five parts moving together. It's the first game we've done that."

Louisville's next opponent is not Kentucky, but FIU. It was scheduled when Richard Pitino was the FIU coach, but even after his son left for Minnesota, Rick Pitino opted to keep the commitment. It's a trip to Florida, with sun, fun and lots of practice time away from the start of the UK-U of L hype.

Late in the Missouri State game, the "Beat UK! Beat UK!" chants began.

"I thought they would chant 'Beat FIU! Beat FIU!'" Pitino joked. "I can't believe they wouldn't do that."


Louisville at Florida International

When: 6 p.m. Saturday

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