Louisville looks to open new arena in a rush

WILL GRAVES - AP Sports Writer
Louisville coach Rick Pitino, left, gestures as he talks with assistants Ralph Willard, center, and Steve Masiello, right, on the bench during an NCAA college basketball exhibition game against Northern Kentucky in Louisville, Ky., Sunday, Oct. 31, 2010. Louisville beat Northern Kentucky 83-66. (AP Photo/Garry Jones)
Louisville coach Rick Pitino, left, gestures as he talks with assistants Ralph Willard, center, and Steve Masiello, right, on the bench during an NCAA college basketball exhibition game against Northern Kentucky in Louisville, Ky., Sunday, Oct. 31, 2010. Louisville beat Northern Kentucky 83-66.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino glanced at the scoreboard during a recent intrasquad scrimmage and groaned.

Turns out, a glitch in the scoreboard at his team's sparkling new downtown arena couldn't go over 100 points.

"Maybe we should have gotten the $3 million scoreboard," the coach joked.

He was kidding. Kind of. The problem has since been corrected, a good thing since Pitino wants the undersized squad to play at a frenetic pace — one he used to lead Providence to the Final Four nearly 25 years ago.

"We don't have enough talent to overcome some of the obstacles we have right now," Pitino said. "The whole has to be greater than the parts."

For Louisville to reach the NCAA tournament for a fifth straight season, it will have to be. The top three scorers from last year's team that went 20-13 and lost to California in the opening round of the tournament are gone.

Immediate help isn't exactly on the way. The incoming freshmen class includes raw 6-foot-11 center Gorgui Dieng and guard Elisha Justice, who originally agreed to join the program as a walk-on before Samardo Samuels' surprising departure freed up a scholarship.

Pitino is labeling this "a bridge year." It could also be a bumpy one. The returning core is led by senior guard Preston Knowles and sophomore point guard Peyton Siva, who will be tasked with pushing the pace in hopes of wearing the opposition down.

The Cardinals have been working with a 24-second shot clock in practice, and Pitino has been calling turnovers when it takes more than three seconds for the ball to get past halfcourt.

"We're going to drive it home that you're going to have to beat us at this style," Pitino said.

It's not the first time he has promised to bring the kind of uptempo play he used so successfully at Providence and Kentucky to the Cardinals. Similar claims in recent season have given way to a more deliberate style that focuses more on smothering halfcourt defense.

Louisville isn't big enough or deep enough to grind it out this year, and Pitino knows it. The Cardinals have to run to win.

"Even though some teams don't want to play like that, we'll force them to play that way," he said.

And force his players to play that way too. After spending two years slowing things down to Samuels involved in the offense, this year there will be no waiting around to set things up. Pitino's message is simple: Run and then run some more.

That's fine by Siva, whose serene nature plays in stark contrast to former guard Edgar Sosa, who graduated after four somewhat erratic years running the team.

"Coach P is giving us more freedom," said Siva, who averaged 3.9 points last season. "You can make more decisions on your own. He told us that he'll take a shot, even if it's a bad shot, over a turnover. He just wants us to go."

Pitino pledged to implement the system last spring when it appeared reinforcements were on the way. But the NCAA ruled Memphis transfer Roburt Sallie and incoming freshman Justin Coleman ineligible. Junior forward Jared Swopshire is struggling with a groin injury that will keep him sidelined indefinitely and freshman guard Russ Smith is also out with a leg injury.

Still, Pitino plans to press on. If his players aren't in shape, they'll get in shape or they won't play.

"It's certainly challenging for (the players) because they don't have a whole lot of substitutes in practice right now," Pitino said. "It will get better in time as we get some subs. I think it will be exciting for fans."

It will have to be to keep the fans from hanging out in the various hot spots at the $238 million KFC Yum! Center. The school moves to 22,000-seat facility this year after 54 seasons in rollicking but rundown Freedom Hall.

There are restaurants, clubs, interactive displays and high-definition replay boards

During a relatively easy exhibition victory over Northern Kentucky on Halloween it appeared the crowd was more interested in taking in the grand tour than watching the game.

"We've got to give them a reason to get in their seats," said Knowles, who was elected team captain despite a rocky offseason that included a run-in with his girlfriend's stepfather that required the police to get involved.

Knowles earned his way back into Pitino's good graces through hard work and a dash of humility. He spent two weeks working with the homeless at the Daniel Pitino Shelter in Owensboro as penance.

"It really made you think about what's important," he said.

It's a lesson echoed by his coach.

Pitino has spent much of the last year-and-a-half dealing with the fallout of a failed extortion attempt by the ex-wife of a team manager. The married father of five acknowledged having a sexual tryst Karen Sypher seven years ago and endured six painful hours on the witness stand during her federal trial this summer.

"It's been a tough 18 months, there's no question about it," Pitino said. "I had to do the right thing a lot of places, but I'm much more tolerant of certain things."

Including a team that will try to grow up on the run.