"I think it speaks volumes for playing in the toughest conference in the history of the Big East," Rick Pitino said. "To come away with the regular-season championship and tournament championship to finish No. 1 in both polls speaks to the season you had. But again, that neither helps or hurts you coming into the NCAA Tournament but it is something we look back on with great pride."
Andre McGee had just sat down to eat dinner and nearly choked on his pasta when Louisville popped up first as the No. 1 overall seed during the NCAA selection show on CBS Sunday evening.
"I was actually eating and I almost chocked because they said our name first," McGee said. "It was a total shock to me."
Louisville enters the NCAA Tournament as arguably its hottest team. Not only did the Cardinals win both the regular-season and tournament titles in a conference that boasts three No. 1 seeds, they've also won ten straight and 20 of their last 22 games.
It's been quite a turnaround for a team that lost three non-conference games to Western Kentucky, Minnesota and UNLV. And it's even more remarkable when you recall a 33-point loss at Notre Dame Feb. 12. McGee said that loss to the Irish served as a wake-up call for the Cardinals. That 90-57 blowout loss might prove the best thing to happen to Louisville all season.
to their Big East titles.
"Everybody started listening to coach a little bit more after that loss," McGee said. "We were riding a nice wave and being hit like that was a reality check for us. We lost some games early and we knew that we had to make that up and with hard work we were able to do that through our conference. We (learned) we couldn't take anybody lightly. That was really an embarrassing loss."
Pitino has often said since that loss to the Irish that the biggest difference in his team has been with their practice habits. Those improved practice habits are now paying huge dividends for the Cardinals heading into NCAA play.
"We weren't practicing hard enough to be a champion," Pitino said. "They weren't dogging it they just weren't at the championship level. After the Notre Dame game they just started practicing to try and be a champion."
Even with a few early season losses, and Big East losses to UConn by 17 and Notre Dame by 33, Pitino didn't alter his plans – a plan that has included constant full court pressure, relentless ball pressure on opposing guards and an up-tempo style that relies on a deep rotation off the bench.
"We just stuck to our plan from the beginning. We didn't deviate from it and it's helped us immensely," Pitino said. "There was never any overconfidence where we were ranked early in the season and there was never any panic when we had some bad games. We made big emphasis on winning the regular-season and tournament championship."
And despite knee and wrist injuries to standout forward Terrence Williams, Louisville has managed to stay away from major injury problems that have plagued them in recent years. That, according to Pitino, has been another key in Louisville's growth and development this season.
"There were no distractions for us," said Pitino. "In other years we had major injury problems and we had to change the lineup. So we had none of those problems this year."
With regular-season and tournament championships attained, Pitino now will focus his team on the ultimate goal of the season – a run at the Final Four and a possible national championship.
"Right now there is no No. 1 – everybody has a chance to win a national championship," Pitino said. "I really think it's wide-open. I think any of us can get beat. I don't think there's a dominant team out there. Whoever plays the best and executes the best is going to win."
Louisville's road to Detroit – site of this year's Final Four – begins Friday against either Morehead State or Alabama State. Siena or Ohio State await for a possible second round matchup. With Michigan State, Wake Forest, Kansas and Utah also in the Cards' Midwest bracket, Louisville has a lot of work to do before it can begin to think about a ninth Final Four appearance and third NCAA title.
"I think everybody thinks it tough," Pitino said. "No matter who you play it's going to be tough because they give you things you're not used to. You've just got to prepare and move on."