By JOHN F. SILVER
Special to ZAGSBLOG
HARTFORD, Conn. – In the old days Louisville coach Rick Pitino could have kept the secret to himself when his Cardinals moved up to No. 1 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll on Monday.
He could have shared it to his players in the locker room as part of a pregame speech and used it as a motivating tool.
Alas, Pitino has no control of the information anymore.
The Cardinals, who flew to Connecticut on Monday because fog grounded their flight the night before, were receiving text messages from friends as they were getting on the plane at 2 p.m.
The Cardinals had moved to No. 1 for only the second time in school history. Monday night against UConn in Hartford was to be their first game playing with the moniker.
“The technology today, they knew way before we even took off,” Pitino said after his team beat UConn, 73-58. “The way people text everything. I told them ‘Look, you’ve already played a very difficult schedule,’” he added. “We’ve already played Northern Iowa, Missouri, Duke, at Memphis, at Charleston. We’ve played a lot of road games. I said, ‘You’ve played a great schedule so you’re very deserving of that. Why don’t you hold onto it for a while? It’s going to leave you but you’re going to go play for it at the end, which is the most important thing. But hold onto it for a while.’”
It took a half for the Cardinals to do it, but they left Hartford with that No. 1 ranking intact as it suffocated UConn in the second half.
For the Cardinals (16-1, 4-0 Big East), it was a picture perfect way to play basketball. Peyton Siva, after first half foul trouble, and Russ Smith (23 points) dominated the guard spots while Gorgui Dieng controlled the paint with 16 rebounds.
After the Huskies shot 53.8 percent in the first half, the Cardinals held UConn to 25.8 percent second half shooting and forced 10 turnovers and scored 15 second half points off turnovers as it outscored UConn 45-24 in the final 20 minutes.
“Our press helped us a bit but our half-court defense is what also stepped up,” Siva said. “We got a lot of deflections. We got a lot of steals. In the second half we felt a lot better than the first half.”
A lot of it can be credited to Siva, who played only four minutes before setting the tone in the second half.
“The defense is, believe it or not, 50 percent cerebral,” Pitino said. “It’s knowing
what the other team is going to do. It’s not just energy
“(Siva) is a very, very smart basketball player. And he had a lot of energy because he was sitting the whole half. We just wanted to weather that storm. We were very happy being down four.”
The Cardinals ranking as No. 1 is the first time since the final AP poll in the 2008-09 season when the cardinals went into the NCAA tournament No. 1. After winning the first game as No.1, Smith wasn’t going to jump on the top ranking bandwagon just yet.
“It didn’t really hype me up,” Smith said, “because I’ve been on losing teams, I’ve been on winning teams. I’m more in the middle of everything.”
Keeping an even keel is something the Cardinals will have to do. With a No. 1 ranking comes a bulls-eye on their back and UConn gave it their best shot on Monday with a raucous crowd reaching deafening levels in the first half as the Huskies built as big as a 29-19 lead.
Lousiville did what a team of a No. 1 pedigree should do and ground out a win. Going forward the Cardinals will get a stiffer test when it hosts No. 6 Syracuse on Saturday in Louisville.
Lousiville certainly looks the part of title contender. It has all the ingredients.
Louisville has great guard play in point guard Siva and a scoring guard with explosiveness in Smith, who is a leading candidate for players of the year averaging over 18.7 points a game. The roster has some beef with sophomore Wayne Blackshear and Chane Behanan and are athletic and ferocious defensively. Add in Dieng, who had 16 rebounds against UConn, and the Cardinals are formidable. Duke knocked off Louisville in November but Dieng didn’t play with a 6-11 junior a near double double per game.
The Cardinals can score, rebound and defend as they look to a powerful team has the season progresses.
Louisville went to the Final Four last season before losing to eventual champion Kentucky.
This year, the Cardinals look as complete as any team in the country.
Photo: Daily News