SYRACUSE - Louisville changed conferences and point guards this season, both very disorienting propositions. It didn't matter. The bottom line is the Cardinals are right at home in March. Their coach makes sure of that.
By breaking open a tight game late in the second half and beating North Carolina State, 75-65, on Friday night, Louisville helped Rick Pitino improve his Sweet 16 record to 12-1. Actually, if you talk to the players, it was more vice versa. He helped them do it.
"He's a dangerous coach, man," said Terry Rozier, who had 17 points and 14 rebounds for a team that will play in the Elite Eight at the Carrier Dome on Sunday afternoon. "He knows what he's doing. He's been around, from the NBA level to here. He knows how to put us in the right position. All he wants us to do is play hard and watch film and listen. That's what we do. Like I say, he's a dangerous coach. We got the job done today."
N.C. State was doing a better job, leading by one with 7:12 left. The game had gone back and forth, but the maturity, resourcefulness and defense that Pitino preaches all kicked in and turned that 54-53 deficit into a 65-57 lead in little more than four minutes.
"He gets us motivated. Every speech he has gets us pumped," said freshman point guard Quentin Snider, who was thrust into a starting role in February after Pitino kicked Chris Jones off the team for misconduct. Snider had 14 points and three assists in 37 minutes, thoroughly outplaying N.C. State point guard Cat Barber (eight points, 3-for-14 shooting), who brazenly had said it would be unwise to press him because he is so quick.
It turned out the Louisville coach didn't need or heed the young man's advice. As Snider said about his counterpart: "We contained him. We kept him to shooting jump shots."
That was another sign of Pitino's effectiveness. He established a game plan that featured forward Montrezl Harrell, a North Carolina product who had 24 points. The Louisville coach also strategically used Anton Gill, who comes from Raleigh, home of the N.C. State campus.
"You never know who Coach is going to put in there," Rozier said.
Gill made a spin move that put the Cardinals ahead for good at 55-54, then quickly added a three-pointer as part of a seven-points-in-11-minutes stretch. Said Snider, "He won the game for us."
Louisville won an Atlantic Coast Conference rematch (the Wolfpack had won the regular-season game) in an ACC venue. It still seems odd to think of the Cardinals as part of the Tobacco Road group. Pitino called it "a mega-conference" and "a Big East, Southern style."
"I guess we're so used to change," he said. "I've been in Conference USA, the Big East, the AAC, now the ACC in my time at Louisville. For me, personally it was great. I had not been to many of these places before. Even though I've been in the business for 40 years, I hadn't been to a lot of these places."
He has been to the Sweet 16 plenty, though, and knows what to do when he gets there.
"He's a great coach," Snider said, "a real great coach."