Pitt's next opponent, Louisville, is much better at home this year than on road
February 23, 2016 12:00 AM
Timothy D. Easley / Associated Press
Always intense Louisville head coach Rick Pitino leads his team against Pitt.
By Paul Zeise / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
No. 11 Louisville has been sort of like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde this season, depending on location.
The Cardinals (21-6, 10-4 ACC) nearly have been unbeatable — 17-1 — at KFC Yum! Center, the lone loss coming against No. 3 Virginia.
But Louisville sports a 3-5 record in true road games and has lost two in a row on the road.
Pitt (19-7, 8-6) experienced the harder-to-beat version of the Cardinals Jan. 14, when the Panthers were held to a season-low in points and lost, 59-41, at Louisville. Wednesday night, the Panthers get a rematch at Petersen Events Center.
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said there isn’t a magical reason why teams, even good teams such as Louisville, are so different on the road than they are at home. But numbers over a large sample size of games don’t lie — teams lose a lot more on the road than they do at home.
“The question has been asked for years,” Dixon said. “We can give you all different reasons and different scenarios. ... I know in the Big East the conference used to say the road teams had a better winning percentage than other conferences, but it just is really an accepted fact that it is tough to win on the road.
“We know that [Louisville] will be physical. We know that they will be aggressive. We have to play through contact and get the ball to the rim and keep the ball out of the paint as much as we can.
“Hopefully, we are a better team than we were back then.”
Louisville coach Rick Pitino said winning road games always has been difficult, but the Cardinals usually have been one of the better teams in Division I at doing so. He said this year it has been a struggle for a lot of teams, not just the Cardinals, and he is hoping they figure out how to finish tough games away from home. Louisville plays three road games — at Pitt, Miami and Virginia — in its final four games.
“We have three road games left, three very difficult games,” Pitino said. “I think with any great conference, it is difficult to win on the road. Since we joined the Big East, we were the best road team in the Big East and then when we joined the ACC, we were still very good last year.
“We have had some close games — at Kentucky, at Michigan State, at Duke. We have played well on the road. We haven’t been able to come up with a victory in some of those.”
Pitino’s Cardinals are in a unique position. They are highly ranked, in contention for the ACC championship and would be a threat to make a decent NCAA tournament run. But they won’t get the chance to prove how good they are in the tournament because the school has self-imposed a postseason ban after an internal investigation of possible NCAA violations stemming from allegations of parties involving prostitutes and strippers for proespects that were paid for by a former assistant coach.
Pitino said the initial news of the ban was shocking for his players, but they have handled it maturely and now are focused on trying to make the most of the rest of their regular season. And while that may include winning an ACC regular-season championship, the focus has to be to enjoying the ride and playing their best game each night out.
“When you are not in the tournament, you are looking for silver linings and challenges,” Pitino said. “And [playing three of their final four games on the road], this will prove to be a good one for us.
“We are looking at [the ACC title], but that is the big picture. The little picture for us is to get ready to play at Pittsburgh. Ultimately, if you win all of your games, you will have a great shot at winning a title, but you have to take it game by game. That’s the important thing.”
The Cardinals feature 11 freshmen and sophomores and would have been an extremely young team this season, but Pitino added two graduate transfers — Trey Lewis from Cleveland State and Damion Lee from Drexel — who have played a major role in the team’s success.
Lee is the team’s leading scorer (16.8 ppg), and Lewis is second (12.1 ppg). Pitino said their leadership has been every bit as important.
“We had come off four great years, but we felt that this was going to be a rebuilding year,” Pitino said. “With that in mind, the only way to stop it from being a rebuilding year was to get some type of experience in here, and the only way to do that was to take a couple of fifth-year seniors.
“Certainly, we have done that with Trey and Damion — a lot of maturity, leadership and both being terrific basketball players. ... We will have 85 percent of our team back next year and those two ... helped us evolve into a winner this year without having to rebuild.”
NOTE — Senior guard Sterling Smith had to return home due to the death of his grandmother. He is expected to return to the team and play Wednesday for the Panthers against Louisville.
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @paulzeise. The “Paul Zeise Show” can be heard weekdays from 6-10 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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