Who's kidding who? Louisville's legit

It's not that you can't believe Rick Pitino when it comes to appraising his teams.

Well, yes it is.

Pitino is at risk of becoming the Lou Holtz of the hardwood. The man spent all preseason telling everyone who would listen that his Louisville Cardinals were in a rebuilding mode. This year would be pretty good, he said, but wait 'til next year. Then the Cards would be Final Four contenders.

Turns out there's more to be excited about in Louisville than waiting for Sebastian Telfair to arrive. Turns out this program might be a year ahead of schedule.

Which would be par for the Pitino course. No other coach so routinely succeeds in getting his teams to exceed expectations -- expectations that the coach now says he purposefully set low this season to challenge his players.

"The biggest weakness of young people today is humility," Pitino said after the Kentucky victory. "I felt from the beginning of the year we were humble, but we weren't starving. That's why I made a big deal of the rebuilding. I want our team to have a PhD: poor, hungry and driven."

Louisville played like it hadn't eaten in months on Saturday in a downright feral environment in Rupp Arena. After falling behind the No. 1 team in America by 14 points and listening to 24,300 fans threaten to blow the lid off the building, the Cardinals rallied and made a veteran team blink at crunch time.

After doing that to arch-rival Kentucky, you cannot call this a rebuilding year. Not when you beat two No. 1s in two weeks (the Cards also housed Florida in Freedom Hall Dec. 13). And not when you play defense like these guys do.

Which brings us to another Pitino preseason pronouncement gone bad: He said repeatedly that this Louisville team was deficient defensively -- at one point announcing that his guys "couldn't guard a group of small children."

It sounded believable at the time. Especially when the Cardinals continually rang up big offensive numbers on each other in a series of preseason intrasquad scrimmages.

But the defensive numbers to date do not lie: Louisville is second in the nation in field-goal percentage defense, permitting opponents to shoot just 35.5 percent heading into its game against Toledo on Tuesday night. The Rockets shot 39.7 percent in a 92-56 Louisville rout, becoming the fourth straight opponent and seventh team in nine games to shoot less than 40 percent from the floor.

Clearly, they can lock up most grade-school teams. And most college teams, too.

No defensive effort was better than the Cards' work against Kentucky. The Wildcats sliced up Michigan State and Indiana on the previous two Saturdays, shooting 60 percent against the Spartans and 54 percent against the Hoosiers in big-arena settings that normally would inhibit accurate shooting. But in the comfortable confines of its own gym, Kentucky couldn't get the easy baskets it had become accustomed to, as Louisville effectively and tenaciously mixed zone and man defenses.

The result: 34 percent Kentucky shooting and just 56 points. And a Louisville victory Pitino called "my best win ever, not in terms of what it meant, but in terms of overcoming the elements, the climate."

But that's what Pitino teams do: They routinely overcome hostile elements, difficult climates, quality opponents and adverse circumstances. They're always among the national leaders in mental toughness. It's extremely rare for a Pitino team to lose its composure and fail to compete.

That's how a team comes into Rupp and makes 15 of 16 free throws. That's how a team wears down an opponent that had trailed a total of 67 seconds all season and outscores it by 14 in the second half. And that's how a team continually finds someone new to step forward at just the right time.

When the going gets tough, Pitino always seems to have an answer. Usually that answer is going to be the splendidly skilled Francisco Garcia (leads the team in scoring and assists), undersized overachiever Luke Whitehead (averaging a double-double at 6-6) or silky-shooting Taquan Dean (who is shooting 50 percent from three-point range). But sometimes Pitino will reach for an unconventional answer. Against Kentucky the answers were relative nobodies Otis George, Larry O'Bannon and Alhaji Mohammed Jr.

George, a junior who was averaging 3.1 points, had made a career of being a dominant practice player who disappeared under the bright lights. Before the game, sophomore point guard Dean called out George, telling him, "Behind closed doors, you're an All-American. It's time to show the world what you can do."

George suddenly flourished in the most adverse setting imaginable. He led the Cardinals with 13 points and eight rebounds, continually beating Kentucky post players Erik Daniels and Chuck Hayes to rebounds in the deciding minutes.

O'Bannon, removed from the starting lineup before the Kentucky game, responded not by sulking but by scoring 11 points and playing tenacious defense. Mohammed helped turn the game around with a pair of big steals and scores late in the first half -- then spent the postgame trying vainly to get his big brother, former Wildcat and current NBA center Nazr, on the phone for some smack talk.

Depth is an eternal Pitino strength. The latest Cardinal to step up was junior-college transfer Nate Daniels, who played just five minutes and didn't score against Kentucky but blew up for 18 points in 13 minutes against Toledo, going 5 for 5 from the field and 4 for 4 from the line.

Louisville has now rolled unbeaten through December, and is only a one-point overtime loss in the season opener to Iowa away from being undefeated -- and from what could have been the school's first No. 1 ranking ever. The Cardinals figure to be solid favorites in their first five January games heading into a Jan. 21 showdown with Cincinnati in Freedom Hall.

By then Louisville could conceivably have risen into the top five in the rankings. Not bad for a rebuilding year.

Gamecocks showing some game
South Carolina's offense is no work of art. The Gamecocks are last in the Southeastern Conference in field-goal shooting at a measly 42 percent.

But they're 12-1 thanks to two things: a user-friendly schedule and some nasty defense.

The Gamecocks lead the SEC in scoring defense by five points per game. They lead the league in field-goal percentage defense and three-point percentage defense, and they're second in steals and blocked shots. They also lead the league in turnover margin, forcing 20 per game.

That's led coach Dave Odom to coin a new phrase for his team: "Feel the heat."

"We wantd to make them feel our heat while we were guarding them," Odom told the Columbia State after the Gamecocks shut down Yale on Tuesday night.

The Ivy Leaguers were the latest in a string of low-stress, non-league games for Carolina, though it is 2-0 against the ACC with wins over North Carolina State and Clemson. But given what everyone thought was a talent shortage in Columbia, 12-1 sounds good no matter the competition.

And now Odom gets back senior Rolando Howell, who saw his first action of the year against Yale after serving a suspension and breaking his foot. Howell played only four minutes and did not score, and Odom isn't feeling too much urgency to force the underachieving former high-school All-American into the lineup now.

"He'll play when he's ready," Odom told the State. "And he's not ready."

His teammates are. South Carolina enters the new year as one of the surprises of 2003.

Around the South

  • The big question at Kentucky: Can the Wildcats use their humbling loss to Louisville as rocket fuel for another big run? That's what the Cats did last year, regrouping after an 18-point loss to the Cardinals to tear off 26 consecutive victories and entering the NCAA Tournament ranked No. 1.

    But clearly, the topic of the Louisville loss is no longer a popular one with Tubby Smith.

    "This is all second-guessing," he said Tuesday after a series of questions about the Louisville game. "I can go on with this all day. I want to talk about Austin Peay (Kentucky's New Year's Eve opponent in Louisville) from now on."

    One thing the Wildcats must do is get leading scorer Gerald Fitch back on task. Fitch scored just six points against Indiana and nine against Louisville, missing nine of 12 shots. (It's true that he had 26 points against Eastern Kentucky in between the Hoosiers and Cardinals, but that was little more than a glorified scrimmage.)

  • Alabama has now won five straight, highlighted by an authoritative upset of Wisconsin in Tuscaloosa on Tuesday. The Crimson Tide is 8-2 against a good early schedule and will enter SEC play as a surprise contender in the West. "We are a team on the rise," sophomore Kennedy Winston told the Birmingham News. "Everyone counted us out." Nobody more than their coach, Mark Gottfried, who told everyone for weeks that his team "is not very good."

  • Houston is showing signs of life. The Cougars upset unbeaten LSU on Tuesday for their fifth straight win and are 6-3 overall -- pretty good for a program that lost 20 games last year in a major backslide after making the NIT in 2002. Indiana transfer Andre Owens scored 41 in a win over Texas A&M and then followed that up with 18 against LSU and leads Conference USA in scoring. The Cougars face a deceptively tough trip to play Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday.

  • Charles Gaines is no household name, but the Southern Mississippi forward is third in C-USA in scoring (18.8 points), first in rebounding (11.2) and eighth in field-goal percentage (57.1 percent). The Golden Eagles could use a few more like him.

  • Vanderbilt matched its best start in 43 years Tuesday at 10-0 without leaving the Nashville city limits. The time has come Saturday, when the Commodores visit Texas Christian.

  • Vandy isn't the only team in Nashville making noise. Belmont, with an enrollment of 3,300, went into Columbia and upset slumping Missouri Tuesday to improve to 6-3. "You don't have many chances to make a national splash like this," coach Rick Byrd told the Nashville Tennessean. Byrd's team undid the Tigers by playing zone almost exclusively.

    Quote to note
    "We talked at halftime about establishing ourselves, about playing at home and screwing them into the floor defensively."
    -- South Carolina coach Dave Odom, on the halftime pep talk to his team against Yale.

    Pat Forde of the Louisville Courier-Journal is a regular contributor to ESPN.com