Louisville, now 6-0, is one game closer to finding out just how good they really are. The Cardinals, who have feasted on cupcakes since the season-opener against defending NCAA runner-up Butler, will face San Francisco Wednesday before welcoming #23 UNLV to the KFC Yum! Center next Saturday.
"Louisville is supposed to be in a down year, but there is no such thing," USA coach Ronnie Arrow said. "I vote on the Top 25 every week and that may turn out to be one of his (coach Pitino) best teams. They play so hard and very good together; they are not selfish. They are experienced in the positions they have to be experienced in. They are going to have a lot of fun with that team. That team plays too hard not to have fun."
After adjusting to the college game last season, Marra is developing into a serious weapon for Louisville. Clearly, Marra is a deep-threat who can stretch defenses with his three-point shooting. But the Rhode Island native is more than just a shooter. The 6-5 forward leads Louisville in assists and showed Saturday he could put the ball on the floor and get to the rim.
"The good thing about Mike, you could see that his stroke was obviously off in the second half, so what did he do? He immediately ball faked and went to the rim. He immediately passed the ball," Pitino said. "He's just a very, very smart player. Like I said the other day in our press conference, he's taken over where [David] Padgett left off in terms of knowing the game and knowing the scouting the report. He didn't have his shot in the second half so he had to do other things to make the team better."
If Marra was the star for Louisville against So. Alabama, fellow sophomores Peyton Siva and Rakeem Buckles provided a strong supporting cast. All told, Pitino's three sophomores combined for 50 points, 19 rebounds, 9 assists, 6 steals and just three turnovers.
Siva had one of his best games this season, finishing with a career-high 15 points on 5 of 6 shooting from both the floor and free throw line. More importantly, Louisville's starting point guard handed out a team-high four assists and only committed one turnover in 25 minutes.
"Peyton Siva is playing tremendous basketball for us right now, especially in practice," Pitino said. "You haven't seen it in the games as much until tonight because he's been in foul trouble. He's been playing really smart, really trying to run the team. I'm really proud of him."
"I think it takes time to develop into a point guard," said Pitino. "I think he's going to be a terrific point guard one day. He's improved dramatically. Somebody has asked me which freshman has improved the most. It's obvious that they've all gotten better. But you don't see it as much as I do. He really looks great in practice compared to last year. He's made dramatic steps, but they all have."
Buckles' 12-point, 14-board performance had to please his coach as Louisville out-boarded USA 44-36 a week after allowing 25 offensive rebounds against Marshall. The Jaguars managed just 10 offensive rebounds against Louisville and Buckles was a big reason why as he hauled in ten defensive rebounds. As good as Buckles was on the boards, Pitino made a point to praise his power forwards passing and ball handling against USA.
"Rock did give us great effort," Pitino said. "We need him to become a Big East power forward, where he does this consistently and mixes it up. I was really happy with the way he passed the ball tonight with the exception of the four on one break where he didn't give it up.
"In the second half he made a lot of good plays for us in breaking the pressure. Besides Peyton, breaking the pressure in the second half was all Rock. When you have a power forward who can do that off the bounce and also passes the ball it is very good."
Now Louisville's sophomores have one more tune-up against San Francisco before facing a UNLV team that Pitino said is the second-best he's seen this season. Though they haven't faced the most difficult schedule, Pitino likes what he's seen from his team so far.
"I think what these guys are doing more than anything else is they are playing extremely hard," Pitino said. "When they get a lead they don't back off. They are very focused on the scouting report.
"Last year's team had much more talent, but this team has much more focus and humility. Sometimes that makes you a better basketball team. They have totally bought into every aspect of sharing the basketball. This is the first time in a long time that I've seen that in this modern generation. They're all acting like the most important thing is execution; the most important thing is talking. I'm real proud of that."