Pitino tells Cards to have fun, enjoy experience

Facing their toughest challenge of the season against top-ranked Illinois this Saturday in the national semifinals, Rick Pitino, an experienced Final Four coach, had some rather simple advice for his Louisville Cardinals as they prepare for the Illini.

Rick Pitino's done this Final Four thing before. In fact, he's the first coach in NCAA history to take three schools - Providence (1987), Kentucky (1993, 96, 97), and Louisville (2005) to the pinnacle of college basketball.

With that much experience - and a title - under his belt, Pitino had some profound, yet simple words of wisdom for his 33-4 Cardinals' before they began preparing seriously for their Saturday match-up against top-ranked Illinois.

"Have fun, enjoy it," Pitino told his team. "It's a once in a lifetime experience."

While it might not seem like much fun to face an Illini team that has lost just once (a one-point loss to Ohio State) this season, Pitino's theory in preparing his team for its Final Four match-up is to be loose, relaxed, and focused on the task at hand.

"It's been a great ride, and we really haven't been able to catch out breath," Pitino said. "We're really looking forward to getting to Saint Louis."

Louisville hopes to have more fun in
Saint Louis. (AP Photo)

To get to Saint Louis, the Cardinals had to overcome injuries and foul trouble to escape from Albuquerque, N.M. last weekend. Though Pitino's troops handled top-seed Washington 93-79 in the regional semifinals, junior guard Taquan Dean sprained an ankle late in the game. While Dean played through pain - and muscle cramping - in Saturday's dramatic 03-85 overtime win over hot-shooting West Virginia, the Cardinals had to do it without leading scorer Francisco Garcia who fouled out with four minutes left in regulation. To top it off, Ellis Myles played through tenonitis in his knees and Otis George kept playing with a pre-stress fracture in his foot.

But Monday, Pitino said his troops are beginning to heal for this weekends all important action. That is, all except George.

"I think we're in good shape," said Pitino. "We were able to rest on Sunday. Otis again will not practice all week – maybe we can get him one day of practice. But outside of Otis, we're in pretty good shape."

Though Dean and Garcia were named to the All-Regional team for their performances in Albuquerque, it was senior guard Larry "Legend" O'Bannon's 24 second half points against the Mountaineers that propelled Louisville to its first Final Four since winning the title in 1986. O'Bannon, who was named the Most Outstanding Player in the regional, has been a key reason why the Cardinals have won 22 or their last 23 games.

"Larry O'Bannon has been one of the best stocks in the country," said Pitino. "His stock just keeps rising and he keeps getting better. He went from an average player last year to a great one this season."

O'Bannon's rise, according to Pitino, mirrors that of his team.

"I just characterize our team as a blue-chip stock that just keeps getting better and better," Pitino said.

Facing their toughest challenge of the season against Illinois, Pitino thinks his team has what it takes to rise to the occasion.

"This team has a never give up attitude, and we've seen it so many times from this team," Pitino said. "They've had so much adversity to overcome. Whether it's been physical injuries or foul trouble, somebody has always stepped up for us. I just think they're very resilient, very tough-minded. They're tough kids. I just sit back and marvel at what they accomplish."

And that's why this season's Final Four journey is so special for Pitino and the Cardinals.

"I just think it's like an actor performing on Broadway," Pitino said. "In basketball, this is what we all dream about."

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