DENVER -- Rick Pitino just has a way with words. Especially when it comes to his own players.
When told Wednesday that Morehead State coach Donnie Tyndall had praised the Cardinals for their man-to-man defense, Pitino took the compliment in a way that only he could.
“Well, we're really not good individual defenders,” he said during Wednesday's media availability at the Pepsi Center. “What this team has is an ability to focus in on the other team’s strengths and weaknesses and study it as great students. Our guys on a ball-containment, on a block-out situation, they’re not very good. I wouldn’t even put them in my Top 10 teams I’ve coached.
“But in terms of focusing in on what they have to do to stop an opponent, study an opponent, they study like coaches study. I think that’s what’s made us strong this year, is the fact that they all really, really focus in.”
With the fourth-seeded Cardinals set to face the 13th-seeded Eagles at 1:40 p.m. Thursday, their collective defensive effort needs to be on point.
“Watching the film, we get a good sense of how they play, the style that they play,” said Louisville forward Kyle Kuric. “By doing that, we focus more on how we can stop them and take advantage of their weaknesses.”
Though the Eagles (24-9) lack a true point guard and aren’t as quick, they do have forward/center Kenneth Faried, a Newark native who just happens to be one of the best big men in the game. He’s Morehead State’s leading scorer, averaging 17.6 points a game, and leads the NCAA with 14.5 rebounds per contest. He tied Ralph Sampson for second place in NCAA history with 84 career double-doubles and also broke Tim Duncan’s “modern era” Division I record (which dates back to 1973) with 1,643 rebounds.
There are no other collegiate stars to compare him to, said Pitino. To find a player that possesses Faried’s athleticism, tenacity in the paint and offensive proficiency, one must go back to the late 80s and 90s.
“You don’t see a Dennis Rodman come along anymore,” explained Pitino. “A Dennis Rodman with a jump shot, because this man has a jump shot. That’s one of the highest compliments because I’m a big Rodman fan from my NBA days. A guy who gets around, never let’s you catch the ball in the post, shot blocker, great defender, draws the charge, is the leading rebounder in the history of the game. Here is a young man who really understands where his bread is buttered.
“…I don't think we have anybody like him in college basketball because he rebounds with great quickness. He’s not an [Charles]Oakley/Buck Williams rebounder. He’s a Rodman/[Kevin]Garnett rebounder. He rebounds with quickness, relentless pursuit.”
Louisville, on the other hand, doesn’t have that big name, go-to scorer. But collectively, the Cardinals have put up big games against some of the best competition around. But their road to the tourney has been bumpy, given the amount of injuries they've suffered along the way.
“I think this year’s team has paid the price,” said Pitino. “Really, they’ve had to fight every single day to not only get better. Every game we’ve played this year, we’ve had to come back, hold serve to win it. We’ve played a lot of close, hard-fought ballgames. That’s what this team has had to go through to reach this point.”