It didn't show for the first half of Tuesday night's exhibition game against Georgetown College, but it did in the second. The Cards shot 54.8 percent after intermission to rally for an 80-68 win over the Tigers in front of 17,184 fans at Freedom Hall.
"Every year during the first game our players really get big-time jitters. In the first half we played nervous, which is to be expected from a young team," said Pitino, whose team shot 32.3 percent in the first half and trailed 35-31 at intermission. "We are a very good shooting team, even though we were nervous in the first half.
"I didn't think we'd win tonight. In other years we were ready to open, but we really weren't ready to open tonight. We just won with incredible hustle. We just wanted to get our guys experience, a lot of playing time and we did a much better job in the second half."
Sparked by sophomore Kyle Kuric and freshman Peyton Siva the Cards used a 14-5 second-half spurt to take control on their way to outscoring Georgetown, No. 7 in the NAIA Division I Top 25 preseason coaches poll, 49-33 after intermission.
Kuric, a 6-foot-4 guard from Evansville, Ind., finished with 15 points and seven rebounds, while sophomore center Samardo Samuels scored 20 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, to Louisville to its 20th consecutive exhibition victory.
UofL shot 43.5 percent (27 of 62) from the field, while limiting the Tigers to 33.3 percent (19 of 57) shooting in a game that featured 60 personal fouls.
"When you play Georgetown, they're very physical," Pitino said. "The way they play is the way the Big East (Conference) plays with a lot more size and a lot more strength at certain positions. It was very good for us to play an opening game against them. We were the No. 1 seed (in the NCAA Tournament) last year and with a minute to go we were up four."
"It was a physical game, Georgetown played us pretty hard," added Samuels, who was 9 for 12 from the field and 2 for 4 from the free throw line. "That first half was pretty physical."
It wasn't especially pretty for the Cards, who return two starters and 55 percent of their points and minutes from last season's 31-6 team that won the Big East Conference and advanced to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament. UofL were just 10 of 31 from the floor, and 8 for 15 from the foul line (53.3 percent), as they fell behind by as many as nine points in the first 20 minutes.
Samuels' floater 18 seconds into the game gave the Cards a 2-0 lead. It was their only advantage of the first 14 minutes. Vincent Crutcher's three-pointer 25 seconds after Samuels' basket gave Georgetown its first lead, and one it would keep most of the half.
The Tigers, who went 27-5 last season and have six NCAA Division I transfers, led 15-9 after nine minutes. UofL tied the game at 15, then moments later at 19 before Kuric's three-pointer with 5:33 to play in the half gave Louisville its first lead (22-19) since 2-0. It was short-lived, though.
Georgetown reeled off 12 straight points for their largest lead (31-22) against the cold-shooting Cards, who had trouble getting offense from anyone other than Samuels, who had 11 points in the first half.
"Samardo Samuels is going to be an all-conference player," Georgetown coach Happy Osborne said. "They are going to shoot the ball a lot better than they did tonight. A big key for them is who steps up at the four spot. (Jared) Swopshire, (Rakeem) Buckles and those guys have got to do it. If I was a Louisville fan I would go ahead and make my reservations for the NCAA Tournament. They are going to get better and better."
UofL cut the Tigers' lead to four at intermission thanks to Edgar Sosa's buzzer-beating three-pointer.
The Cards, who were voted No. 4 in the Big East Conference preseason coaches' poll, came out aggressive in the second half. Samuels converted an old-fashioned three-point play, and following a Georgetown free throw, Swopshire hit a jumper to tie the game.
No more than three points separated the team before the Cards kicked off a 14-5 run with a rebound dunk by Kuric. The sophomore accounted for 10 points - with three baskets, two free throws and an assist - in that spurt.
"Kyle Kuric is really making me happy, it's really great to see," Pitino said. "I think it's confidence and learning. Just like freshmen Stephan Van Treese and Mike Marra, sometimes they're like a deer in headlights, because they're trying to learn the play, the defense and the presses and then all of a sudden they know it and now they can just play on instinct and become good players like Kyle Kuric."
Kuric's dunk, off a pass from Siva, gave Louisville the lead for good (55-53) with 7:54 to play.
"Kuric's been tremendous, working in the off season, and he gets to the glass like no other," senior guard Jerry Smith said.
Siva assisted a pair of Kuric baskets during that stretch, and also was on the receiving end of an assist from him, on his way to finishing with six points, eight assists, six steals and seven turnovers.
"He's been turning the ball over too much, but he plays so hard, he's so aggressive you've got to give him his due," Pitino said of Siva. "He's trying to make plays, you can't start harnessing him, he's got to learn from his mistakes. I have no problem with him. He's going to be a great player some day, one of the best I've ever coached at that position."
Crutcher, a product of Pleasure Ridge Park High School, tallied 10 points to lead Georgetown (1-0), which beat Temple Baptist 115-47 in its Oct. 22 season opener.
Sosa added 12 points and four assists for UofL, which hosts Bellarmine University in its final exhibition at 7:07 p.m. next Wednesday.