Rick Pitino and overall No. 1 Louisville on a mission to win national title
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At the end of Louisville's sensational 33-point turnaround in its 78-61 victory over Syracuse in the "final" Big East Tournament championship Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, the nets were left unscathed. You would think the Cardinals would've been eager to claim such valuable historical mementos, but Rick Pitino's team apparently has a higher goal.
Asked why his team didn't cut down the nets, Pitino explained, "I just thought we had four goals going into this year. One was to win the regular season, and we shared it with great teams. Two was to win the championship. Three was to get a very high seed. And four was to win a national championship.
"Now, we don't presume at all that we can get there. We just wanted to savor, if we ever do get there, that one moment."
After checking off goal No. 2 on Saturday night, the Cardinals (29-5) achieved goal No. 3 on Selection Sunday when they received the highest possible seed as No. 1 overall in the 68-team field. They earned the top line in the Midwest Regional to begin the journey to the Final Four in Atlanta.
Louisville enters the tournament having won 10 straight games and 13 of the past 14 with the only loss being a five-overtime game at Notre Dame. It also has a veteran core of guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith and forward Gorgui Dieng and the experience of reaching the Final Four last season, where it lost to eventual champion Kentucky in the semifinals.
"You should be confident," Pitino said. "But I'm humble enough at my age to understand that Duke and Missouri had great runs last year, great teams, and they lost in the first round . . . If it happens, it happens for this basketball team."
One reason it could happen for the Cardinals is that they are what Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim described as "one of the best pressing teams in the country." Siva and Smith lead a Louisville press that forced 20 Orange turnovers that it converted into a 32-11 advantage in points off turnovers. That's how it turned a 16-point deficit into a 17-point win.
"Our press is pretty much controlled chaos," Siva said. "For the most part, we tried to pressure their guards. Michael Carter-Williams did an excellent job handling the pressure, but at the end, we tried to wear them down. And it took effect later in the game."
Syracuse guards Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche totaled 11 turnovers against Louisville. "For us to really battle like that shows a lot," Siva said. "We've got to continue that momentum and continue to play that way."