By Jeff Goodman
LOUISVILLE - When my eyes scrolled across the court in the plush Yum! Center prior to the start of the game, it hit me. The ball didn't even need to be tossed up, Rick Pitino didn't need to make a substitution or bark at one of his players. This wasn't the sixth-ranked team in the nation. Couldn't be.
Pitino's Louisville Cardinals earned a hard-fought overtime victory over a Top 25 club, Vanderbilt, on Friday night after Peyton Siva provided the heroics with the game-winner with 1.4 left on the clock. It was a win to celebrate, for Pitino to pump his first with emotion, yet another reason to marvel at a Hall of Fame coach who in the past year-plus has done wonders -- arguably his finest coaching job.
"Maybe it's the injuries or that other teams have more talent," Louisville's Kyle Kuric said. "But we understand we can't just show up and win."
Pitino maintains that there are three NBA players that took the court for his Cards in the 62-60 victory -- Peyton Siva, Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan.
That could be the case. It could also be accurate that not a single one plays in that league down the road. But that's not what's relevant to Pitino right now.
"Not since 1987 have I had this much fun coaching as I have in the past two years," Pitino said. "This team epitomizes everything you want in a team."
Pitino's winning with a team that's fun for him to coach because these guys are more concerned with the front of the names on their jerseys instead of the names on the back - and he is optimistic that this ballclub will still maintain the same grit and determination to go along with a few more bodies, talented ones, come January.
"Once we have all the pieces ... ," Pitino said.
Rakeem Buckles will, barring a setback, return next Wednesday against IUPUI. Freshman Kevin Ware is expected to join the team after the first semester and give Louisville a competent backup point guard that can spell Peyton Siva. Wayne Blackshear, considered the prize of Pitino's heralded recruiting class, is slated to return to the court in January after he rehabs from another shoulder injury. Elijah Justice has a broken nose and will likely return in a couple weeks while reserve big man Stephen Van Treese is out indefinitely with a knee injury.
"We're still waiting to get some guys back," said Kyle Kuric, who finished with 15 points and hit a couple of huge shots down the stretch.
If Blackshear does somehow get 100 percent by the middle of Big East play - and Louisville avoids the injury bug that has plagued the program for the last year-plus, there's no reason to believe that the Cardinals can't eventually become the No. 6 team in the land.
But they aren't there right now.
They struggled to beat a Vandy team that is extremely vulnerable without their 7-footer Festus Ezeli on their own home court, a Commodores team that is desperately clinging to its Top 25 ranking without its least dispensable player.
"We continue to win," Pitino said.
Last season, with a team that was picked to finish eighth in the Big East, Pitino wound up finishing third in the most daunting league in the country.
And this team, if and when it gets healthy, is deeper and more talented. That means Pitino can utilize his pressing defense more to his liking to speed up opponents instead of being forced to keep opponents guessing by constantly switching defenses.
"We'll be able to play differently once we get everyone back," Pitino admitted. "And our offense will improve."
"It's a treat to coach these players," Pitino added.
And fun to watch them get the most out of their ability. Even if they aren't the No. 6 team in the land.Photo: US PRESSWIRE