Recently, during the Marquette game, I had the good fortune of sitting in some seats that were above my pay grade. The person I was sitting with pointed out to me that we were relatively close to where the NBA scouts sit when they come to games. At half time we saw one of the scouts coming up the steps in front of us. We stopped him to ask who he was there to see. He smiled and said that he was there to see Gorgui. We asked him what he thought and whether we were going to get to keep him for another year. He politely smiled again said, "you can have'em, he's not ready, yet."
As he turned to walk away I asked him what he thought of our chances in March. He whirled around and said that he loved that way we defend; but, he also noted that ever since the Syracuse game Pitino "had them wound too tight, they're scared to make a mistake." After the scout left, the person I was with agreed with his assessment of the team being too tight. After thinking about it for a few minutes I told him that having them wound that tight, at that point in the season, was Pitino 101, and it is.
This is what Rick Pitino does, and I believe it's one of the reasons that he always has his teams playing some of their best basketball heading into March. I also believe it's one of the reasons for losses that "shouldn't happen." Sometime during the season he always becomes super critical of a handful of players he thinks can take it. His demeanor on the sidelines begins to morph into that of a ruthless authoritarian, with no patience for mistakes.
His leash for players who make defensive mistakes becomes shorter and shorter. I truly believe that it's one reason our players always seem to be total basket cases scared of their own shadows at certain moments during the season; but, it is a brilliant strategy that usually pays off. It is probably a large factor in why Rick's teams have generally over-achieved, relative to their seeding in the tournament.
Think about it. If you strap on a 40lb weight vest and run two miles every couple of days, for two or three months, how much faster do you think you could run that two miles if you tried without the weight vest? Pitino is a master of mind games. An evil geniuses with an uncanny knack for figuring out which screws to tighten, and then tightening them until the team feels like they can't move six inches without making a mistake.
Then, like a Hot Wheels car that's been pulled backwards just a little to far... they start to click and sputter right before he lets go and allows them to take off at a furious pace.
This team has shown glimpses of excellence this season. They have sputtered, and now they seem to be putting things together. Simple things like big men catching interior passes. Individual players (see Kevin Ware) seem poised to play their best basketball at just the right time.
If you're reading between the lines, in my opinion, everything seems to be coming together at just the right time. It doesn't hurt that we are smack dab in the middle of four "should win" games before a trip to Syracuse, and then two home games against teams that seem to be bound for the tournament. Next Saturday's tilt in the Dome will tell us a lot about where this team is, but if last year taught is anything, it's that this group can definitely get hot at any moment.
There are only four teams in the country without a double digit loss on the season: Indiana, Kansas, Colorado State and Louisville. While other teams being mentioned as Final Four Contenders, like Michigan and Duke, have lost games by 23 and 27, Louisville's total margin of defeat in all five losses is just 21 points.
That says a lot about this group. More than anything it says that despite having games when things weren't going their way, not once did they stop fighting. Not once this season did they stop defending the ball like a pack of wild hyenas chasing a gazelle. Not once this season did they let "Oh well,... on to the next one" creep into their minds.
Even when that mental weight vest seemed to be holding them down.