NEW YORK -- In the past 24 years, Rick Pitino has enjoyed a few special coaching moments.
Hung a few banners, hoisted some national championship hardware, dabbled in the NBA.
Which is why, when the Louisville coach said what he said, everyone’s ears sort of perked up.
“They’re a fun group to coach,’’ Pitino said. “Not since 1987 have I had this much fun coaching a basketball team.’’
Coach-speak hyperbole? Maybe.
But coaches are a unique bunch. They love to win and they love the glory that comes with it, but at their core, they love it when their message is heard, when the team they’re coaching plays the way they imagined basketball was supposed to be played somewhere in Hoops Utopia.
And for Pitino, that’s what this season has been.
That it comes after Pitino's worst year personally of course makes this all the more special. Even if he hadn’t gone through so much himself, the coach would have liked this season.
It is the age-old sports cliché come to life -- a team overcoming obstacles and rallying as the underdog -- but just because it’s cliché doesn’t make it any less rich.
This is the season when, off the court, practically nothing has gone right for Louisville. The Cards’ lone returning player, Jared Swopshire, has yet to play. Ten other guys have missed portions of the season with injury. Yet inexplicably, improbably, everything on the court has been seamless.
From the first tip, when they "upset" Butler to open the Yum! Center to Thursday’s night 81-56 rout of Marquette to reach the Big East tournament semifinals, the Cardinals have been a season-long band of overachievers who don’t seem to know or care that they’re overachieving.
“Not since 1996 did I walk into a place and feel as confident as this,’’ Pitino said. “And in 1996, I had a reason. I had eight pros. The way these guys play, with sacrifice and dedication, they bring it every game. It’s great to have that feeling.’’
What makes Louisville work doesn’t often work anymore: There is no superstar on the team. Preston Knowles is easily the leader and center of the Cardinals’ success, but he is as content and willing to cede the limelight as he is to step into it.
Against Marquette it was Mike Marra's turn. The player Pitino once tabbed the best high school shooter he’d ever seen, scored 22 points off the bench, draining six 3-pointers in the process.
But Marra was just one of four players in double figures for the Cards and was simply the beneficiary of a team's unselfish play.
Louisville dished out 24 assists on 30 made baskets.
“In this day and age, there’s a lot of talk about clichés, about playing for the name on the front of the chest and not the back, but this team truly epitomizes that,’’ Pitino said. “They absolutely do not care about themselves. All they care about is winning. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen players after a loss be as disappointed as the coaching staff and this group takes it hard as we do.’’