Defending champions survive slugfest

March, 22, 2014
Mar 22
7:02
PM ET

ORLANDO, Fla. -- After Louisville guard Russ Smith went 1-of-5 from the floor and turned the ball over five times against Saint Louis in the first half on Saturday, Cardinals coach Rick Pitino pulled him aside in the locker room at halftime.

“Russ, there’s a lot better coaches than me in the other locker room, but picture if I was in the other locker room,” Pitino told him. “Do you think I would even let you breathe any time down the court? Do you think I would let you breathe?”

“No, Coach,” Smith told Pitino . “You would double me, you would trap me.”

[+] EnlargeRuss Smith
AP Photo/John RaouxThough he struggled with his shot (3-of-10), Louisville guard Russ Smith scored 11 points and had seven assists in the Cardinals' win over Saint Louis.
“So don’t you think the other coaches are doing the same thing?” Pitino asked him. “All the great ones from Michael Jordan to Kobe [Bryant], they don’t try to score 20 points in the first quarter. They get everybody else the ball and they let the game come to them, and then the other team fatigues and things open up.”

Smith, a senior from Brooklyn, N.Y., must have listened to Pitino’s advice because he played much better in the second half, leading the No. 4 seed Cardinals to a 66-51 rout of the fifth-seeded Billikens in a round-of-32 game in the Midwest Region of the NCAA tournament at Amway Center.

The Cardinals, the defending national champions, will meet the winner of Sunday’s game between No. 1 seed Wichita State and No. 8 seed Kentucky in the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis on Friday.

Smith finished with 11 points and seven assists, and he didn’t try to force things against Saint Louis’ suffocating defense as much as he did in the first half.

“Russ Smith has grown so much as a basketball player,” Pitino said. “But he still has one thing left, and I tried to explain this to him at halftime. He has a very difficult time because he’s a distracted young man. His last lesson is to play like he did in the second half. He doesn’t understand the scouting of the other teams. He’s all Michael, all Kobe. He doesn't get it. So we're going to give him shock treatment on Monday."

Smith said he’s willing to do whatever it takes to help the Cardinals move forward in the tournament.

“I agree with anything [Pitino] says,” Smith said. “He’s gotten me to the point of being an All-American. Everything he says is correct. I’m just playing to win. I’ll do whatever I have to do.”

Against Saint Louis, less from Smith turned out to be more in the second half. Pitino warned his team that Saint Louis’ slow pace and stingy defense would frustrate them.

“They watched the Pitt-Florida game, and I said, ‘Guys, that’s the exact game you’re going to be in. You’re going to have to be the prettiest team in an ugly game because that’s the way it’s going to be,'" Pitino said.

Pitino’s comments were prophetic because the Billikens and Cardinals slugged their way through a forgettable first half. Louisville shot 40.9 percent in the first half; Saint Louis shot 28.6 percent. The Billikens went 0-for-15 on 3-pointers in the game.

After taking a 25-16 lead over the Billikens at the half, the Cardinals couldn’t make anything at the start of the second. Louisville went nearly six minutes without making a field goal -- its only points came on a pair of free throws on a Saint Louis technical foul. But after the Billikens went ahead 29-27 on forward Rob Loe’s layup with 14:17 to go, Smith ended Louisville’s drought with a basket and then made two foul shots on the next trip for a 31-29 lead.

After Louisville forward Luke Hancock made 3-pointers on consecutive trips a few minutes later, the Cardinals finally seemed to be back in rhythm.

[+] EnlargeLuke Hancock
David Manning/USA TODAY SportsLuke Hancock led the Cardinals with 21 points, including four 3-pointers.
“The emphasis we put on taking the 3-point shot away was big, and we just wanted to grind out a ‘W,’” Pitino said. “It’s not every game that you can play up and down, like if it’s Houston or Connecticut, the teams that run. This is a team that will turn you over, they’ll grind you out, and they play everybody close. We were real proud of our effort defensively. We grinded out a win, and that’s what the NCAA tournament is all about.”

Maybe that’s why Smith was trying to force things so much early against Saint Louis. During Louisville’s run to a national championship last season, the Cardinals breezed through their region in reaching the Final Four. They beat North Carolina A&T by 31 points, Colorado State by 26, Oregon by 8 and Duke by 22.

Then Louisville won close games over Wichita State and Michigan to earn Pitino a second national championship.

“[This year] feels good,” Smith said. “Nothing is going to feel like last year. We were clobbering teams. Last year’s team is incomparable. The new guys are hungry, but this team is different. This is our first year playing together. Last year, we’d been playing together for three years. We all have new roles this year and there’s different chemistry. I feel good about our guys and where they are.”

After the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament, the defending national champions have as much of a chance as anyone else to win another title.

“Obviously, they’ve got a chance to repeat,” Saint Louis coach Jim Crews said. “They’re going to be in the final 16, so they’ve got a better chance than the other 314. [Their chances] are a lot better than us."

Mark Schlabach | email

College Football and Basketball

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