College Basketball Nation: Mike Marra

On Friday, after the day had essentially ended and I had packed up for a weekend spent celebrating my friend's wedding, bad news emerged from Louisville. As Dana O'Neil reported, and Cardinals coach Rick Pitino announced, senior guard Mike Marra once again had torn his ACL, the same injury that robbed him of all but two games in the 2011-12 season:
Marra was pivoting and trying to make a pass early in practice when he was injured, coach Rick Pitino said in a statement.

An MRI is scheduled for Saturday, but Pitino told WHAS 840-AM radio in Louisville that Marra re-tore his ACL. It's the same injury that sidelined Marra for all but two games during the Cardinals' run to the Final Four last season.

"An unfortunate thing happened today," Pitino told the radio station. "We've been working Mike Marra out individually for the past two months and he'd passed all the tests. Literally in the first 10 minutes of practice, he blew out the same knee with an ACL."
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AP Photo/Ed ReinkeWith his career likely over, Louisville's Mike Marra appears to be handling his situation with maturity.
The wedding on Saturday was a fantastic time, and not just because I think weddings are almost always a blast. It was also fun because my friend is from Louisville, and his high school friends and family are an excellent group of people divided into rowdy thirds: Indiana, Kentucky, and Louisville fans. Naturally, I spent a lot of time talking about basketball. You don't talk about much else, hanging with those guys, not in 2012, not with the UL-UK rivalry brimming with hatred, not with all three teams perched near or at the top of the college hoops landscape. When I wasn't dancing to the Isley Brothers' "Shout," I was usually talking about basketball.

It was somewhere during Saturday evening's festivities, having spoken with a variety of folks about it, that I realized there are two ways of looking at Marra's injury.

The first is within the context of Louisville's upcoming season. In this view, Marra's injury is an obviously unfortunate but otherwise sidelong occurrence. Kentucky fans tried to convince me that Louisville desperately needed outside shooting, and they're right. But my response was that Pitino's team still won the Big East tournament title and went to the Final Four without much in the way of efficient offense, let alone outside shooting, and that losing Marra was hardly a disqualifier when it comes to projecting a repeat performance.

But when you talked to Louisville fans about it, their concern was about more than the upcoming season. Nearly all of them were genuinely gutted by the news. It wasn't just about the basketball, about the national title hopes, about crude lineup calculus. It was about a guy who had fought for nearly 12 months to return to the game and finish his career, and who had that return -- his rightful and deserved payoff after what must have been an excruciating year -- immediately and ruthlessly taken from him. After missing a Final Four run, he didn't even get to enjoy the nonconference season, or get to fling shots up at Midnight Madness, or any of it. And now, not only is Marra's season lost, his career is almost certainly over, too.

Perhaps the only redeeming thing about this injury is the way Marra has handled it. According to WDRB's Eric Crawford (via Pitino), Marra told Louisville trainer Fred Hine, "You know, Fred, it wasn't meant to be. So I'll get a head start on coaching."

If that was me, I'd be cursing the fates, shaking my fist at the basketball gods, and all the rest of it. But Marra is taking his utter misfortune -- and there is no other way to describe it -- in stride.

That's a unique thing about college athletics, even in the high-profile one-and-done hoops era: When you join a program with fans like Louisville's (or Kentucky's or Indiana's or any of the other major hoops-obsessed programs across the country), you essentially join a family. Things may not always be hunky-dory, and every family has black sheep. But if you give yourself over to your teammates and coaches and fans, they will love you forever in return.

So it is with Mike Marra. He may not have been a crucial part of Louisville's 2012-13 run. Or maybe he would have been. We don't know. But I do know that Louisville fans will always love him, and will always wish it had ended any other way than this. It's not the same kind of love you feel at a wedding, surrounded by friends and family, slapping backs and catching up and toasting to better days ahead. But it's not all that different, either.
1. Mike Marra’s season/career-ending ACL injury at Louisville won’t have a dramatic effect on the potential Final Four Cardinals. Injuries had prevented Marra from having a dominant impact on the team over the course of the past year. Marra could hit situational shots, but Louisville coach Rick Pitino said the Cardinals aren’t going to be a team defined by making 3s. Pitino said Sunday the Cards probably will only make six-to-seven a game (that’s still pretty good) with the best shooter on the squad in Luke Hancock. Kevin Ware and Peyton Siva have improved quite a bit, too. The Cardinals will miss Marra’s on-court enthusiasm but clearly they will survive his absence.

2. Expect Texas Tech to make a decision some time this week on whether acting interim coach Chris Walker gets to replace head coach Billy Gillispie for the season. A decision could come as early as Tuesday. Walker has kept a low profile and while there isn’t a gag order from the staff and players, the consensus is to keep things quiet while athletic director Kirby Hocutt decides whether to stay inside or go outside for a new coach to lead the Red Raiders during the 2012-13 season.

3. Old Dominion coach Blaine Taylor isn’t seeing any effects of the pending move to Conference USA in 2013 on the recruiting trail. He’s not worried, though, considering the Monarchs tend to land who they will, regardless of conference affiliation. But what Taylor did do to combat the Colonial Athletic Association’s decision to uphold the bylaw and prevent ODU from playing in the conference tournament was to upgrade the non-conference schedule. The last three games the Monarchs added were VCU, Murray State and College of Charleston. “It’s a helluva of a challenge for one of my youngest teams," said Taylor. ODU would need all the help it can get to be in in position for an at-large bid without the benefit of the automatic qualification out of the CAA tourney.


NEW ORLEANS – There were no tears.

The Louisville Cardinals didn’t hang towels over their heads or pause to collect themselves as they talked with reporters.

Following their 69-61 loss to archrival and national-title favorite Kentucky in the Final Four on Saturday, Louisville’s players and coaches did not sulk. They were disappointed but not devastated.

Wayne Blackshear chomped an apple and conversed with the team’s other youngsters about his classes as he sat on a stool.

Peyton Siva and Russ Smith stared at their smartphones. A few players who’d never touched the floor at Mercedes-Benz Superdome joked in a corner.

The team that had buckled the Final Four’s power grid -- Kansas, Ohio State and Kentucky were all ranked in the top 10 of both major polls at the end of the season -- offered the field a true underdog and added some intrigue to the gathering.

“Well, basically what I told the guys was that for Chris [Smith] and Kyle [Kuric], it was like preparing for the Olympics, and you just work so hard every single day, gave some extraordinary effort, then at the end you're on the podium and they're playing somebody else's national anthem, but you have a bronze medal around your neck,” said coach Rick Pitino. “When I compared them a few weeks ago to the '87 Providence team, it was in terms of effort and attitude. They made me really, really proud. They battled a great team tonight. We just needed lot of things to go right down the stretch.”

The Cardinals had no business being in New Orleans. And their postgame vibe in the Big Easy suggested that they knew as much.

Blackshear scored nine points in 14 minutes of crucial reserve duty against the Wildcats. But his October shoulder injury forced him to miss most of the season and commenced a string of personnel mishaps for the Cardinals.

Mike Marra and Rakeem Buckles suffered season-ending knee injuries. Other key players were hampered by injuries, including Siva, who dealt with an ankle injury at the start of the year.

The team used mixed martial arts helmets in recent practices to protect three players, Siva included, who’d endured multiple concussions.

“We made it to the Final Four when nobody thought we could,” said Siva, who led the Cardinals with 11 points.

That’s why Pitino smiled on the Superdome podium as he talked about this Cardinals squad, one that had clearly overachieved by even reaching New Orleans.

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Richard Mackson/US PresswireSophomore center Gorgui Dieng (10) and Louisville were proud of their surprise run to New Orleans: "Why are we gonna hang our head?"
The 4-seed cast doubt on what seemed like a formality -- Kentucky winning the national title -- with its effort.

A pregame trade with the Hornets might not have guaranteed a victory for the Cardinals. After the game, Pitino compared Anthony Davis (18 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks) to Bill Russell. John Calipari’s squad shot 57.1 percent from the field to Louisville’s 34.8.

But with Kentucky leading 46-34 with 15:37 to go and threatening to enter Blowout Mode, the Cardinals clawed back with the same fight that led the Big East’s seventh-place squad to a Big East tournament title and Final Four appearance.

A Siva 3-pointer tied the affair (49-49) and capped a 15-3 run with 9:12 to play. But Kentucky surged after that moment, which ignited the school’s fans.

Louisville matched Kentucky’s toughness (outscored by only 40-38 in the paint). But the Cardinals failed to equal the Wildcats’ execution.

They mustered just 13 second-chance points on 19 offensive rebounds. Their 5-for-15 mark on second-chance opportunities was the lowest rate in this year’s NCAA tournament, per ESPN Stats & Information. The latter also reported that Louisville missed 13 dunks and layups.

But the Cardinals didn’t talk like a team that felt like it had blown a national championship opportunity.

“I don’t think there’s any disappointment here. Like, nobody believed in us, nobody believed we could make it to the Final Four,” said Gorgui Dieng, who scored 7 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked 4 shots. “Even they couldn’t believe we could make it to the Sweet 16. We wanted to make a big run to the national championship, but it is what it is. Why are we gonna hang our head?”

A “they all doubted we could get here” mantra reverberated around the locker room. And really, there were few reasons to believe the Cardinals could crack the Final Four on Selection Sunday, even though they possessed one of the top defenses in America.

“We don’t look at ourselves as the underdog because we’re a big-time university. We just feel disrespected because we’re winning,” said Russ Smith, who scored nine points. “It’s like nobody respects us.”

Their fans do.

Louisville loyalists flooded Bourbon Street as early as Thursday. Boisterous school cheers rang out from downtown streets. The blue-collar crew had crashed the country club assembly of power players in New Orleans.

The Cardinals’ supporters wanted the city to know that they were ready for the festivities.

They didn’t need a victory to party.

Pitino said he hopes his players follow that example.

“I told the guys, ‘Look, I'm going to Miami tomorrow and I'm celebrating a season where we worked around the clock, around injuries and everything else. If you guys don't celebrate and have good, clean fun, you're fools. Because I think there's only been eight teams that got to the Final Four in the history of one of the greatest traditions and they did it,” he said. “So they're going to celebrate. Kyle will celebrate a little more low-keyed than Chris will, but they're going to celebrate.”


NEW YORK – Rick Pitino grew up on the East Side -- 26th Street, to be exact -- and like all boys who grew up with basketball visions dancing in their heads, Madison Square Garden was the Holy Land, the hallowed hardwoods for the gods.

He watched games there as a boy, even signed his scholarship papers to the University of Massachusetts on the Garden court.

When he coached there for the first time, as head coach at Providence, Pitino cried, overcome with emotion at what he had achieved.

And when he became the court’s primary caretaker as the head coach of the New York Knicks, those were pinch-yourself days.

Pitino is 59 now. He’s logged more of his professional career in the Commonwealth of Kentucky than the streets of Manhattan, but in his gut he remains the little kid who stared adoringly at the Garden.

This place still means something to him, and in an age of fraying conference loyalties and the death of collegiality, somehow it seemed fitting that at the last Big East tournament as we know it, the Garden King stood victorious.

Pitino and Louisville, a team even the hometown crowd had written off after a 33-point loss to Providence in January, topped Cincinnati 50-44 to win the Big East tournament title.

“I’ve had a lot of good memories in this place,’’ Pitino said amid the celebration on the court, “and this is one of them.’’

In recent years, plenty of people have argued the merits of conference tournaments. Outside of the one-bid-league fray, some say they are little more than annoying stopgaps to survive en route to the NCAA tournament.

After Syracuse was ousted by Cincinnati in the semifinals, the Orange said as much.

“As much as we want to win this tournament, the only one that matters is the one that starts next week,’’ coach Jim Boeheim said.

“Everyone says that,’’ Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin countered, “after they lose.’’

No one will question whether it matters to Pitino. Through a tumultuous year in the Big East, Pitino has emerged as the league’s primary politician and loudest cheerleader. He stumped for Memphis and Temple, practically begging his longtime friend and league commissioner John Marinatto to extend an invitation to the basketball-friendly schools.

And when Marinatto did, no one crowed more about what a fantastic job Marinatto had done, insisting that though the Big East will be different it will remain every bit as good, than Pitino.

Cynics might say he’s merely protecting his own brand. Louisville is here and no one left in the Big East wants anyone to think the conference is anything less than the power it always has been.

But to Pitino, it’s more than that. He holds the conference close to his heart, and while he accepts the changes he remains a traditionalist at heart, one who deeply believes in honoring the vision of league founder Dave Gavitt.

So to take home the crown, his second since Louisville joined in 2005, and the last in the league’s most powerful alignment, matters.

“This is the last time the Big East will be together like it was,’’ Cardinals guard Chris Smith said. “To win it, it means a lot to us. I know it means a lot to Coach P.’’

Pitino won the 10th conference title in his career (five SEC, two Big East, two Conference USA, and one North Atlantic) in vintage fashion, rebuilding another Humpty Dumpty of a team.

Along with massaging Gorgui Dieng into productivity, educating the enigmatic Russ Smith on the fine line of shot selection and riding the roller-coaster tendencies of point guard Peyton Siva, only three players have participated in all of the Cardinals’ games this year. The rest have helped construct an injury report that would make an NFL team blush:

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Tony Spinelli/ESPN.comWinning another Big East title at Madison Square Garden after a tough season for Louisville was all the sweeter for New Yorker Rick Pitino.
Mike Marra, torn ACL, out all year; Rakeem Buckles, torn ACL, out since January; Stephan Van Treese, patellar injury, out all year; Wayne Blackshear, shoulder surgery, out 25 games; Siva, sprained ankle and concussion, missed three games; Kyle Kuric, sprained ankle, missed three games; Jared Swopshire, recovering from groin injury, missed two games.

It forced Pitino completely out of his comfort zone. He had to put the brakes on the fast-tempo style he’s always loved and felt this team was best suited for, and turned the Cardinals into a wildly unpredictable outfit.

“It was really hard,’’ Pitino's son and assistant coach Richard said. “In a lot of ways, this team overachieved, but then again he’s done that his whole career.’’

There is no secret to Pitino’s methods other than consistency.

Cronin spent two seasons working under Pitino at Louisville, taking a lifetime of learning in that short span.

“The most important thing he taught me is that you have to coach like you coach,’’ Cronin said. “You can't let outside people define who you are. You can’t let the kids splinter. You have to make sure they keep in mind who they are as people and who they are as a team.’’

It was a valuable lesson for Cronin this year as he shepherded Cincinnati from the black eye of the December brawl with Xavier to the brink of its first Big East crown -- and an equally crucial tool for the Cardinals.

The ante has been upped in Kentucky these days. Down the road in Lexington, John Calipari is busy collecting talent like a hoarder. His Wildcats will be announced as the overall No. 1 seed on Sunday evening and will head into the NCAA tournament as the favorite to win the title.

Louisville, in the meantime, has swung and missed on some recruits and entered the season on the heels of an NCAA tournament upset at the hands of Morehead State in the same year that Kentucky went to the Final Four.

“I know a lot of people back home doubted us,’’ Chris Smith said. “That’s OK. They’ll love us now.’’

Louisville did not win style points in this victory against Cincinnati. It was hard to watch, a slugfest where points were at a premium and the scoreboard had trouble nudging itself forward.

The Cards won because of their defense. Pitino challenged them to guard the arc like soldiers against the league’s leader in 3-pointers made per game -- “I told them I don’t care if they go by you; you have to guard them from the NBA line,’’ Pitino said.

It made all the difference. The same Cincinnati team that had 10 3-pointers by the half against Syracuse’s zone finished the game 3-of-14 against the Cardinals.

When the buzzer sounded, the players erupted, a mosh pit of infra-red jerseys celebrating in front of the court. Pitino, all business, walked to shake Cronin’s hand before finally breaking in to a wide grin as he hugged his assistants, wife and son, celebrating once more time on his own personal home court.

When he was walking in to work on Saturday night, a construction worker spied Pitino and yelled out, “Hey coach, you shoulda never left the Knicks!’’

“I looked up. He couldn’t have been more than 26 or 27,’’ Pitino said. “I yelled back, ‘You were in diapers.’’’

Perhaps, but New Yorkers never forget. Not when it comes to the Garden.


NEW YORK – When Gorgui Dieng first enrolled at the University of Louisville, he was more exclamation point than Big East post player.

With 187 pounds stretched to its limits over a nearly 7-foot frame, guys like Fab Melo, Yancy Gates, Henry Sims and Jack Cooley could have him used as a toothpick.

And post moves?

Let’s just say Dieng had the moves like Jagger.

“I didn’t have any,’’ the sophomore said.

But after some dedicated weight training and personal tutelage from Cardinals coach Rick Pitino, daily 45-minute private sessions that were about as fun as they sound – “Oh no, it wasn’t fun at all,’’ Dieng laughed – Dieng now is playing like an exclamation point instead of looking like one.

The Louisville big man scored 16 points and yanked down 6 rebounds, shooting a perfect 8-for-8 from the floor to help the Cards beat Notre Dame 64-50 and head to the Big East tournament championship game for the third time in four years.

Louisville will face Cincinnati in a title game that is perfectly emblematic of the shifting sands of conference realignment. This marks the first championship in which none of the league’s founding members are playing.

“Conference USA comes to the Big Apple,’’ Pitino joked, alluding to the two teams’ former league.

It is certainly not the final anyone predicted in November, or maybe January or February for that matter.

Cincinnati looked awful early, took part in an awful brawl against Xavier in December and lost to Rutgers in January.

Louisville, meantime, lost at Providence by 31 in January and spent the entire season blowing the budget on athletic training supplies. It got so bad Pitino worried about having enough players to practice.

Only three – Chris Smith, Chane Behanan and Dieng – have played in all 34 of the Cardinals’ games. Almost as many (Mike Marra and Rakeem Buckles) have missed the entire season with injury; Stephan Van Treese played in just three.

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Anthony Gruppuso/US PresswireGorgui Dieng credits coach Rick Pitino for helping him build the game to take on the likes of Notre Dame's Jack Cooley, left.
Fortunately for Louisville, Dieng was one of the mainstays.

He has not been spectacular but he has been steady, a reliable presence inside defensively and becoming a more deft scorer with every game.

The same player who averaged 5.7 points and 4.4 rebounds a year ago posted 11 double-doubles this season.

He even has moves, plenty of which were on display against the Irish.

“We wanted to go inside to Gorgui because they don’t tap the post and he did a very good job tonight of going to a variety of different moves, especially the jump hook,’’ Pitino said. “He’s becoming a terrific player. He plays real hard and the sky’s the limit to how good he can become down the road when he gets stronger.’’

Ah, the stronger part.

Dieng ballooned from 187 to 244 in a year, taking his charge to gain weight a little too far.

He checks in at a more muscular 235 now, but he’s still giving up plenty in the league. Cooley weighs in at 248 and stands just 6-9, Sims is 245 and 6-10, and Gates, who will Dieng will try to muscle around in the title game, is 260 pounds despite being only 6-9.

“I can tell I was kind of, I don’t want to say soft, but I wasn’t physical at all,’’ Dieng said. “I just got on the court and played. But (Pitino) changed my whole game. He made me like being physical.’’

Charming and friendly, the fish out of water – a Senegalese by birth now dropped in Kentucky horse country – has become a favorite in Louisville.

Fans love him and his teammates love to tease him for his malapropisms and still-balky English.

“He doesn’t get sarcasm at all,’’ Peyton Siva said.

Dieng, though, is getting this basketball thing down.

With an exclamation point.

Pitino and his Cards keep finding a way

December, 3, 2011
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LOUISVILLE -- Kyle Kuric swished two huge shots to force overtime and Peyton Siva made the game-winning layup in Louisville’s 62-60 victory over Vanderbilt at the KFC Yum! Center on Friday.

But the real life-saver in the Cardinals’ win never left the bench.

Rick Pitino has an NCAA title ring in his jewelry box and is the only coach to lead three different schools to the Final Four. Still, in a roundabout way, what Pitino has done at Louisville the past few seasons is as impressive as any feat on the future Hall of Famer's résumé.

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Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesPeyton Siva came through with the game winner as the seconds ticked away in overtime on Friday.
One year after leading a team with a glaring talent deficiency to a 25-win season and a third-place finish in the Big East, Pitino has the Cardinals off to a 7-0 start despite a list of injuries that would cause most programs to wilt.

McDonald’s All-American Wayne Blackshear has yet to play because of a shoulder injury. Mike Marra is done for the season with a torn ACL. Rakeem Buckles is working his way back from knee surgery, while Elisha Justice (broken nose) and Stephan Van Treese (knee) are out indefinitely.

Yet here are the Cardinals, undefeated and ranked sixth in the country.

“Never have I had as much fun coaching as I have the last two years,” Pitino said. “This team epitomizes everything you want in a team in terms of rooting for each other and not giving up.”

The reason for Louisville’s resolve is simple.

“We’re a reflection of our coach,” Siva said.

Indeed, it was a only a few years ago when some college basketball fans were calling for Pitino to resign following a messy off-court situation in which he was accused of impregnating a woman and then paying for her to have an abortion.

Still, rather than walking away from the game in shame, Pitino surged forward. Instead of floundering in the face of adversity, he flourished.

“We’re never going to give up,” Siva said. “Whether we’re out there with broken legs or broken noses or hands or whatever, we’re going to go out there and play for our coach. He puts so much hard work into practice and hard work into us. This is our time to show that we’re going to battle for him.”

The Cardinals’ talent level hasn’t been as high lately as it’s been in the past. Terrence Williams and Earl Clark were both NBA draft lottery picks in 2009, but since that time Louisville hasn’t had many NBA-caliber players on its roster.

While the situation might not speak all that well for Pitino’s recent accomplishments on the recruiting trail, it’s magnified his prowess on the sideline. No team in the country has made so much out of so little the past few seasons.

Louisville is counting on its fortunes changing as players such as Buckles and freshman Kevin Ware -- who becomes eligible Dec. 14 -- work their way into the rotation. Blackshear could be back by late January.

In the meantime, Louisville is achieving success thanks to a menacing defense and an aggressive mindset that allows it to fight back just as victories seem to be slipping away. Last season, the Cardinals won six games by five points or fewer. Three of its victories were in overtime.

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Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesUL keeps piling up injuries and just keeps winning under Rick Pitino.
“We’ve been winning close games the past two years,” Pitino said. “So I don’t think we have to learn, because we learned last year. It’s a treat to coach this team because you see so many great comebacks. There are times when you think they are dead, and then you just look up and we win the game.”

Friday was one of those occasions.

The Cardinals trailed by nine with less than eight minutes remaining and by six with less than four minutes remaining before battling back to force overtime against the 19th-ranked Commodores. Vanderbilt appeared to have the momentum after jumping out to a 55-50 lead early in the extra period, but Louisville fought right back and took a 58-57 lead on Kuric’s 3-pointer from the left corner with one minute left.

A pair of free throws by Vanderbilt’s John Jenkins made it 60-60 with 12 seconds left. That’s when Siva took the inbounds pass, jogged up the court and blew by two defenders on his way to the game-winning layup with 1.2 seconds remaining on the clock.

“I just wanted to go jump in the crowd or something,” Siva said. “I was saying, ‘God, thank you for letting me make that shot -- but please don’t let them hit a buzzer-beater from half court.’ ”

Instead, the Commodores never got off a shot, and a wild celebration ensued as the final horn sounded. Beaming from ear to ear near the sideline was Louisville’s 59-year-old head coach.

More than 600 wins and three decades since beginning his career, Pitino has never looked better.

Louisville injuries just keep piling up

November, 14, 2011
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Is there a team in the country that has been hit harder with injuries? In the weeks leading up to what should be a very promising season, Louisville just can't seem to shake the bug.

Guard Peyton Siva spent time recovering from a concussion. Forward Stephan Van Treese is out with a knee injury. Forward Rakeem Buckles is, too. Highly touted freshman recruit Wayne Blackshear required surgery on his shoulder; he may return as early as December but could also miss much of the season if his recovery progresses slowly.

Louisville may now add guard Mike Marra to this list, no matter how much it would rather not do so. On Sunday, Marra tore his ACL in the Cardinals' 68-48 win over Lamar, the school announced Sunday night. Typical recovery time, as you no doubt know, is nine to 12 months. Marra is certainly lost for the season and will face a recovery that could take him all the way to the start of the 2012-13 season next fall. As the Associated Press reported Sunday night, Marra knew something was up right away; he heard his knee pop and the bone come out of the socket, or at least that's what it felt like.
"You heard the screaming, that was the worst part," Marra said. "It felt like literally my bone came out of the socket and then it popped right back in. It was pretty scary. Once the initial 'scary' got over, I calmed down a little bit. I was OK."

Marra was initially diagnosed with a sprained knee, but additional testing performed Sunday night revealed it was worse than even that.

It's a brutal loss for Louisville, not so much because Marra is a star -- he's a decent role player who defends well, basically -- but because of the sheer volume of injuries afflicting this team. The only upside, if there is one, is that Rick Pitino's team has more depth than most; the combination of his ensemble cast from last year and the batch of new freshmen this year gives his team more options than most when it comes to replacing injured guys.

Marra is a replaceable cog in Pitino's machine. But if this keeps up, at some point, even Pitino is going to run out of cogs.

10 observations from opening weekend

November, 14, 2011
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Friday's Carrier Classic and Cleveland State’s upset of Vanderbilt on Sunday weren’t the only things that grabbed my attention during the first weekend of the 2011-12 campaign. Here are 10 other observations I made while tracking the season’s first few days of games.

1. First and foremost, it was good to see Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy on the sideline for Sunday’s victory over Southern. Kennedy, who was hired during the offseason to replace Mark Turgeon, had taken a month-long leave of absence after being diagnosed with early stages of Parkinson’s disease. Although his condition has improved, Kennedy still isn’t sure if he’ll accompany the Aggies to New York later this week for the final rounds of the 2K Sports Classic.

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AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhWhen on the hot seat, it is not advisable to open the season with a loss to a Division II team.
2. Speaking of coaches, Southern Illinois’ Chris Lowery continued his fall from grace Saturday when the Salukis suffered a 64-63 home loss to Ohio Dominican, a Division II school that won despite committing 27 turnovers. Just five years ago, Lowery was one of college basketball’s hottest names after SIU advanced to the Sweet 16. Now he’s hoping to save his job by avoiding his fourth consecutive losing season.

3. Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor is still the best point guard in America -- for now. But I won’t be surprised if Kendall Marshall surpasses him by the time conference play begins. The North Carolina sophomore had 15 assists and just one turnover in Sunday's victory over UNC Asheville. And, yes, I know it helps that Marshall is surrounded by future NBA lottery picks who finish most every play. Still, Marshall is a special, special talent and, in my opinion, the most irreplaceable person on the Tar Heels’ roster.

4. I watched Billy Gillispie’s Texas Tech debut on ESPN3 Friday night. I must say, I was impressed with how cohesive and selfless the Red Raiders looked in a 90-85 victory over Troy. Remember, this team is almost completely made up of true freshmen and junior-college transfers. Yet they managed to keep their poise and hit big shots in the waning minutes of a tight game. Gillispie also had to be pleased with the announced crowd of 10,088. Even though the figured was reportedly inflated, the turnout was still encouraging.

5. I can’t wait to watch Belmont play again.

6. Arizona came from behind to defeat Ball State on Sunday without the services of highly touted point guard Josiah Turner. Wildcats coach Sean Miller elected not to play the freshman after a pair of lackluster performances in Zona’s first two games. Miller is obviously trying to send a message to a player who some analysts hailed as a “one-and-done” prospect.

7. Remember how everyone said point-guard play was the reason for Baylor’s poor performance in 2010-11? A.J. Walton apparently didn’t like it. Walton, last season’s starter, is one of the most-improved players on the Bears’ roster. He dished out five assists and played a team-high 26 minutes in Sunday’s win over Jackson State. Walton, who has yet to relinquish his starting job, should continue to be a key player in a backcourt rotation that includes a pair of newcomers in Boston College transfer Brady Heslip and Pierre Jackson, last season’s National Junior College Player of the Year.

8. Anyone who thought Northern Iowa was destined for a rebuilding year probably changed their opinion after the Panthers dismantled Old Dominion 63-46 on the road Saturday. ODU, you may remember, went 27-7 last season and lost by just two points to national runner-up Butler in the NCAA tournament. Northern Iowa doesn't have much time to celebrate, as Ben Jacobson’s team flew to the opposite coast for a tilt with Saint Mary’s that tips off Monday night at 11 p.m. PT.

9. A handful of high-profile players who missed either all or most of last season with injuries have looked good in their return. Virginia’s Mike Scott snared 15 rebounds in Sunday’s win over South Carolina State while Washington’s Abdul Gaddy had 15 points and six assists in a win over Florida Atlantic. On Friday, Purdue’s Robbie Hummel had 21 points in 20 minutes in a rout of Northern Illinois.

10. Sorry to end on a depressing note, but after I file this story, I’m going to pour out a little of my Diet Coke for Louisville’s Mike Marra, who is out for the season after tearing the ACL in his left knee in Sunday’s win over Lamar. Marra, a junior guard, averaged 6.4 points last season and figured heavily into the Cardinals’ plans. Louisville had already lost standout freshman Wayne Blackshear to a season-ending shoulder injury.

Morehead St. shirt celebrates Louisville win

March, 21, 2011
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The front of this Morehead State T-shirt includes an Eagle and the red feathers of a Cardinal it has just devoured, along with the date and final score, 62-61.

The back of the shirt reads: "YUM! TASTES LIKE VICTORY!"

The Morehead State bookstore is selling the shirt following the team's upset win against Louisville in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, earning bragging rights over the powerhouse program that has the brand-new KFC Yum! Center and Big East affiliation.

With the two schools about a two-hour drive from each other, Morehead State was bound to rub it in the face of Louisville after Demonte Harper's game-winning 3-pointer and Kenneth Faried's game-ending block on Mike Marra.

The win for the Eagles also gave them notoriety as a school and a program. Coach Donnie Tyndall said after the win that an administrator told him that the school received 3,000 applications for admission after the win.

Morehead State eventually lost to Richmond and fell short of the Sweet 16, but the future appears bright.

"I really feel like our program is on solid ground," Tyndall said. "We'll have 10 of our 11 guys will have graduated once these three seniors graduate in May. So we're doing a lot of good things in the community, on the floor, in the classroom. I'm very, very proud of what we've accomplished to this point. I really feel like the sky's the limit in continuing to grow our program.

"Five years ago I don't think anyone would have predicted we'd be 40 minutes away from the Sweet 16."

Morehead State continues the dream

March, 17, 2011
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DENVER -- Morehead State coach Donnie Tyndall was having trouble sleeping at 2:30 a.m. when he made the decision. If the Eagles had the ball on the final possession against Louisville, they were going to go for the win.

Faced with that scenario, the way Demonte Harper heard Tyndall telling that story in the huddle before the biggest shot of his life, there was no way he wasn’t going to take the 3-pointer confidently.

Harper buried the shot at the top of the key with 4.2 seconds left and Kenneth Faried blocked Mike Marra’s jump shot attempt on the other end at the buzzer to lift No. 13-seeded Morehead State to a 62-61 win on Thursday in the second round of the NCAA tournament, easily the most significant victory in the program’s history.

[+] EnlargeMorehead State's Demonte Harper
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesMorehead State's Demonte Harper watches his game-winning 3-pointer sail toward its target with seconds to play.
A senior who experienced a loss to in-state power Louisville two years ago when the Eagles were a No. 16 seed and the Cardinals had future NBA players all over the floor, Harper saw his shot to make his coach’s vision come true.

“Coach said, ‘I dreamed about this last night. I know exactly where I'm going to. I'm going to put it right in your hands, Demonte. I don't want you to drive it to the hole. I want you to pull up and win the game off a 3-pointer. I want you to pull up and win the game.’”

The Cardinals used a 9-0 run to take a four-point lead with 1:20 left and the hopes of an upset started to wane. But despite a tough day on offense for Faried (finished with 12 points on 4-of-17 shooting), Morehead State -- which trailed by eight at one point -- delivered the ball to its dreadlocked big man in the post, and he came through with two subsequent free throws to cut the lead.

With Louisville leading scorer Preston Knowles knocked out of the game in the second half with a sprained foot, it was left to Elisha Justice in crunch time. The freshman had hit a 3-pointer to give Louisville the lead with 2:13 left, but missed the front end of a one-and-one after Faried’s free throws gave MSU the ball with 23.8 seconds left.

Harper unleashed his dagger, beating Peyton Siva with a crossover and burying the shot. Faried blocked Marra’s attempt at the other end, and the school’s cheerleaders rushed the court to celebrate. In Tyndall’s new reality, he approached a cheering section and repeatedly pumped his fists as his face reddened.

“We played for 40 minutes, and that’s what it takes to beat a team like Louisville,” Tyndall said.

Morehead State surprised UL by racing off to a 7-0 lead, using a swarming defense to get the Cardinals out of sorts and force them into 10 of their 16 turnovers in the first half. The Eagles’ Terrance Hill buried a 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer to leave the two teams tied at 33, and it was a sign of things to come.

Hill scored 13 second-half points, repeatedly hitting 3-pointers to bring the Eagles back and keep them within a reasonable distance. Chris Smith led Louisville with 17 points, but it wasn’t nearly enough.

“I could live with losing last year. They were much better, Cal,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said, referring to last season's first-round loss to Pac-10 champion California. “This is a tough one to lose. This is a tough one.”

Pitino’s team surprisingly tied for a third-place finish in the Big East in the face of injuries and without returning a single starter. But with Faried gathering 17 rebounds, it was apparent the Cardinals missed leading rebounder Rakeem Buckles despite a solid game from Terrence Jennings, who blocked four shots and had eight rebounds.

“We are what we are,” Pitino said. “We’re just too small, and unfortunately it hurt us on the backboard.”

And it was Faried, the nation’s leading rebounder, who made his 6-foot-8 presence felt at the end of the game. Marra pulled up for a shot, and Faried threw his arms up and said he got all ball.

“This is a dream,” Faried said. “Did we just beat Louisville?”

Rapid Reaction: Morehead St. 62, L'ville 61

March, 17, 2011
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DENVER -- Morehead State pulled off the stunner against Louisville, winning 62-61 in such an upset that the cheerleaders stormed the court and coach Donnie Tyndall pumped his fists at the crowd. Demonte Harper hit the game-winning 3-pointer with 4.2 seconds left, and Kenneth Faried blocked a potential Mike Marra game-winning attempt at the buzzer. Terrance Hill led Morehead State with 23 points, hitting five 3-pointers.

Turning point: Louisville leading scorer Preston Knowles left the game for good with 8:51 left, apparently due to a sprained left ankle. He had his shoes off and left the court in crutches. The Cardinals missed him, especially since it was freshman Elisha Justice who was left on the court and missed on the front end of a one-and-one to give Harper the chance for the game winner.

Key player: Hill was money from beyond the arc, tying his season high with five 3-pointers in six attempts. He also had eight rebounds and three steals, going 6-for-9 from the field overall.

Key stat: Faried went 4-for-17 from the floor, but made his presence felt with 17 rebounds. The nation’s leading rebounder used a couple of those boards to kick out for 3-pointers.

Miscellaneous: Terrence Jennings did a fine job guarding Faried, holding him to four field goals. He also had two straight buckets down the stretch and gave the Cardinals a four-point lead with a dunk with just over a minute left. Peyton Siva played with such heart down the stretch, dishing the ball off to Jennings for easy baskets.

What’s next: Morehead State moves on for a chance to play in the winner of the Vanderbilt-Richmond game.


NEW YORK -- In the past 24 years, Rick Pitino has enjoyed a few special coaching moments.

Hung a few banners, hoisted some national championship hardware, dabbled in the NBA.

Which is why, when the Louisville coach said what he said, everyone’s ears sort of perked up.

“They’re a fun group to coach,’’ Pitino said. “Not since 1987 have I had this much fun coaching a basketball team.’’

Coach-speak hyperbole? Maybe.

But coaches are a unique bunch. They love to win and they love the glory that comes with it, but at their core, they love it when their message is heard, when the team they’re coaching plays the way they imagined basketball was supposed to be played somewhere in Hoops Utopia.

And for Pitino, that’s what this season has been.

That it comes after Pitino's worst year personally of course makes this all the more special. Even if he hadn’t gone through so much himself, the coach would have liked this season.

It is the age-old sports cliché come to life -- a team overcoming obstacles and rallying as the underdog -- but just because it’s cliché doesn’t make it any less rich.

This is the season when, off the court, practically nothing has gone right for Louisville. The Cards’ lone returning player, Jared Swopshire, has yet to play. Ten other guys have missed portions of the season with injury. Yet inexplicably, improbably, everything on the court has been seamless.

From the first tip, when they "upset" Butler to open the Yum! Center to Thursday’s night 81-56 rout of Marquette to reach the Big East tournament semifinals, the Cardinals have been a season-long band of overachievers who don’t seem to know or care that they’re overachieving.

“Not since 1996 did I walk into a place and feel as confident as this,’’ Pitino said. “And in 1996, I had a reason. I had eight pros. The way these guys play, with sacrifice and dedication, they bring it every game. It’s great to have that feeling.’’

What makes Louisville work doesn’t often work anymore: There is no superstar on the team. Preston Knowles is easily the leader and center of the Cardinals’ success, but he is as content and willing to cede the limelight as he is to step into it.

Against Marquette it was Mike Marra's turn. The player Pitino once tabbed the best high school shooter he’d ever seen, scored 22 points off the bench, draining six 3-pointers in the process.

But Marra was just one of four players in double figures for the Cards and was simply the beneficiary of a team's unselfish play.

Louisville dished out 24 assists on 30 made baskets.

“In this day and age, there’s a lot of talk about clichés, about playing for the name on the front of the chest and not the back, but this team truly epitomizes that,’’ Pitino said. “They absolutely do not care about themselves. All they care about is winning. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen players after a loss be as disappointed as the coaching staff and this group takes it hard as we do.’’

Louisville's Rakeem Buckles to have surgery

December, 30, 2010
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Louisville forward Rakeem Buckles suffered a spiral fracture in his finger this morning and is expected to miss "a couple weeks" after undergoing surgery, coach Rick Pitino told reporters.

Buckles, who was averaging 8.2 points and a team-leading 7.5 rebounds, will miss the rivalry game with Kentucky tomorrow at the KFC Yum! Center, where he was to be the guy to have defended Wildcats freshman sensation Terrence Jones.

"It affects [the rotation] signifcantly," Pitino said, adding that Stephan Van Treese would have to step up.

"It doesn't affect us mentally because we're used to all these injuries we've been having."

The Cardinals are also missing guard Mike Marra (ankle) and Elisha Justice (concussion), and Pitino said forward Jared Swopshire would "probably" miss the entire season with a groin injury.

Not that Kentucky will feel sorry for Louisville, but coach John Calipari feels his counterpart has been doing "a great job" with the personnel he has.

"Typically what (Coach Pitino) does is he gets his team, he figures them out, they play to their strengths, and that's what they are doing," he said. "They are playing to their strengths. They do it very well, and they are doing it as well as anybody in the country."

Louisville stuns Syracuse

February, 14, 2010
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SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Since the New Year, the University of Louisville has played the part of Job with a Sisyphus complex.

The Cardinals dropped five of their eight games in January, including decisions made on questionable calls at both Seton Hall and West Virginia, to land themselves squarely on a very thin bubble.

Their response? A week into February they headed to New York with their coach, embattled in the summer after his indiscretion, now dodging rampant rumors that he would bolt the school for a job in the NBA at season’s end -- and get promptly humiliated by Big East underling St. John’s in what appeared to be a bubble-bursting loss.

[+] EnlargeMike Mara
Don McPeak/US PresswireMike Marra came off the bench to score 12 points for the Cardinals.
But the thing about Job and Sisyphus: they never quit. Job took on his suffering and Sisyphus stubbornly kept pushing that boulder up the hill.

Louisville finally inched the boulder in the right direction when the Cardinals stunned No. 3 Syracuse and 31,053 of its orange-loving Valentine’s Day fans, 66-60.

“We didn’t play well at St. John’s but they played great,’’ UL coach Rick Pitino said. “We thought we were going to win one or two of these road games. After we lost to St. John’s, I told the guys, ‘Which one would you rather have: St. John’s or Syracuse?’ Here’s your chance to beat a team that is top three in the nation and could win a national championship.’’

Telling and doing, however, are two different things. Yet the same Louisville team that has been equal parts perplexing and vexing played an intelligent and steady game from the opening tip.

The Cardinals, who have had a season-long case of the yips, didn’t blink when Andy Rautins nailed back-to-back 3-pointers to retake the lead late in the second half. They didn’t wilt when Jared Swopshire and Edgar Sosa both missed the front end of one-and-ones in the final minute, and they didn’t cave when, up just two, Rakeem Buckles turned the ball over under the Syracuse hoop, passing the ball out of bounds with 32 seconds left.

“We played a very intelligent game,’’ Pitino said.

Louisville also handed Syracuse a dose of its own medicine, going zone much of the game. And a team that is so good in its own zone was completely stymied at how to attack one.

Unable or unwilling to penetrate, the Orange instead jacked 19 3-pointers and made just five of them.

Player of the year candidate Wes Johnson had 14 points, but shot only 5-of-20 from the floor; Rautins managed just three 3-pointers

“We weren’t really aggressive until the end of the game,’’ Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “The last few games, it’s been like that. We’ve managed to be tough and hang on to win the game, but you can’t be in all of these situations at the end of the game and think you’re going to win them all.’’

In the grand scheme of things, this shouldn’t affect Syracuse much at all. The Orange are 24-2 and would need a flat-out disaster to slide out of a No. 1 seed.

Still, around here there will be some serious hand-wringing, no doubt. Asked about the fretful fans, Pitino -- who has handled that sort of thing once or twice in his career -- chuckled.

“What is this, the Kentucky of the North?” he said. “We played a great team, and please remind your fans, the University of Louisville isn’t exactly chopped liver. There’s no reason to go jumping in the snow. Have a little vino and relax because Syracuse is a great, great team.’’

What will be interesting is what this does for Louisville. Long term, what’s most important is that the Cardinals’ young players performed particularly well. Mike Marra, who Pitino said is the best pure shooter he’s ever coached -- and that includes the likes of Travis Ford and Tony Delk -- nailed four 3-pointers off the bench, including a dagger trey with 1:28 left. Buckles chipped in a critical eight points and four rebounds, spelling Samardo Samuels when he got in foul trouble. And Samuels, inactive for much of the game, came on late with six critical points in the final three minutes.

But in the immediate future, what matters is Louisville’s NCAA outlook. It still isn't entirely clear. The Cards are 16-9 and 7-5 in the Big East, maybe with a huge win like this putting a little separation between themselves and Cincinnati and Marquette.

They have exactly zero wiggle room, though. Louisville should not lose to Notre Dame, DePaul, Connecticut or Marquette, and would help its cause tremendously if it could steal a home victory against either Georgetown or Syracuse.

“We know we are a good team,’’ Marra said. “We haven’t really caught a break all season, but this is exactly what we needed. Hopefully it will get the ball rolling.’’

Rolling uphill, that is.

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