SAPAKOFF COLUMN: Louisville's Pitino on College of Charleston: 'They won'tsurprise us'
TD Arena will shake the peninsula tonight. The House That John Kresse Built will scream when someone in maroon forces a Peyton Siva turnover, roar from here to North Myrtle Beach when Andrew Lawrence nails the 3-point shot that forces overtly slick Rick Pitino to call a timeout.
“We're going into a hornet's nest, we realize that,” the Louisville head coach said Monday. “We have to be ready to play.”
No. 5 Louisville, due on Meeting Street tonight, is the best team ever to play at the College of Charleston. The Cardinals are between Final Four appearances, a legitimate beast still technically in the Big East.
No. 9 North Carolina in January of 2010?
A House of Cards trumps Carolina blue and it's not even close. The magnificence of the Cougars' overtime victory at TD Arena gradually was diluted as those aberration-riddled Tar Heels missed the NCAA tournament.
No. 7 Connecticut in December of 1995?
Very good team. All-American Ray Allen, a graduate of Hillcrest High School in Dalzell, led the way. The Huskies' 30-2 record included a 77-60 victory over the College of Charleston. But the game was at the North Charleston Coliseum and UConn suffered a Sweet 16 loss to Mississippi State.
That was the year Pitino led Kentucky to the NCAA title.
This Pitino-coached team is his latest version of pressure defense built to create suffocating scoring outbursts. Siva and Russ Smith form the best backcourt in the country.
Thus, a Cougars victory equals the biggest home win in school history.
Baylor and Kentucky
Hope is grounded in logic. Head coach Doug Wojcik's 5-2 Cougars won Nov. 24 at Baylor and the Bears bounced back by snapping Kentucky's 55-game home winning streak on Saturday to knock the Wildcats out of the Top 25.
As schoolchildren in the Bluegrass State must recite daily, Kentucky slipped by Louisville, 69-61, at the Final Four last April before beating Kansas for the national championship.
The Cardinals seem a bit vulnerable after a 69-66 home victory Saturday against Illinois State.
“Charleston obviously is like Northern Illinois,” Pitino said. “They're one of the teams in the country that could surprise a lot of people. They won't surprise us. They could win, but they won't surprise us, because with two minutes left in the game last year it was anybody's game; it was a war all the way to the end.”
Charleston's 69-62 loss before a crowd of 20,752 at the KFC Yum! Center was perhaps its most impressive performance in Bobby Cremins' final season as head coach. Matt Sundberg came off the bench to go 3 for 3 from 3-point range.
Pitino has College of Charleston family ties. His son Richard, in his first-year as head coach at Florida International, served as a Cougars administrative assistant under Tom Herrion during the 2004-2005 season.
His daughter Jacqueline is a College of Charleston student.
Credit to Cremins
But tonight's game is about friendship, not bloodline. Soon after Cremins resigned for health reasons, he emailed Pitino and asked that Louisville honor a contract that stated the Cardinals would play in Charleston as long as Cremins was still the head coach (Roy Williams also had a Cremins Clause in North Carolina's contract).
“We took this game because of Bobby Cremins, a longtime friend,” Pitino said. “If it wasn't for Bobby, this game wouldn't exist. It has nothing to do with my daughter; I see my daughter quite often.”
While the Cougars miss versatile forward Trent Wiedeman, out with an ankle injury, Louisville is in the second of four to six weeks without center Gorgui Dieng (broken wrist).
“People take it to us more,” Pitino said of life minus the 6-11 Dieng, who set a school record with 128 blocks last season.
So Louisville won't be peeking ahead to a home game against the Missouri-Kansas City Kangaroos.
It all makes for intriguing basketball.
Unprecedented on a home court around here since Duke happened by McAlister Field House for an 83-60 victory over The Citadel. That was January of 1991, two months before Mike Krzyzewski claimed the first of his four NCAA championships.
Small craft advisory tonight: wakes well worth the wait might splash the walls of Fort Moultrie.
Reach Gene Sapakoff at 937-5593 or on Twitter @sapakoff