INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Rick Pitino appreciates being back in the NCAA Tournament, maybe more than ever.
One year after Louisville opted for a self-imposed postseason ban, the two-time national championship coach has his second-seeded Cardinals poised to make a potentially deep run.
If sitting out taught the Cardinals anything, it's that they must take advantage of this opportunity.
''The difficult thing about last year was our culture as a basketball team, especially in the humility department, was changed tremendously by Damion Lee and Trey Lewis. That's what hurts,'' Pitino said Thursday in Indianapolis. ''Those guys transferred to Louisville to play in the NCAA Tournament and they never got a chance to play. But they did change the culture of our basketball team becoming a very humble group.''
The dings still exist, too.
Louisville (24-8) gave up two scholarships this season, and is still waiting to hear back from the NCAA in regards to its response to alleged recruiting violations that included accusations of strippers being hired to win over high-school prospects. The NCAA has not provided a timetable for the response its headquarters, just a short walk from where the Cardinals open tourney play against first-time entrant Jacksonville State (20-14) on Friday.
The winner faces seventh-seeded Michigan or 10th-seeded Oklahoma State on Sunday in the second round of the Midwest Regional.
On the court, little has changed.
The Cardinals still like to press, still score points and can still turn up the tempo as they did in a 77-62 victory over Indiana in their last trip to Bankers Life Fieldhouse in December.
Pitino also continues to see the game through a different set of eyes than some of his coaching colleagues.
''Someone said that we play four, five different defenses,'' first-year Jacksonville State coach Ray Harper said. ''He's seen some that I don't even know we do. I didn't know we played that many. I asked one of my assistants, are we really playing this many zones? So I don't know. I tell you what I expect, I expect a team that's going to come after us right from the get-go.''
Especially if there's any caged up frustration from last season's absence.
The real danger for the Ohio Valley Conference champion is that this is when Pitino's teams thrive. Among active coaches, he's currently No. 7 with a winning percentage of .740. In March and April, he's No. 2 at 53-18 (.746).
And these Cardinals are eager to stick around this year after already learning one tough lesson about being a one-and--done team in the ACC Tournament.
''For us, it showed us the urgency we have to play with because we went up there for one game and had to go back home,'' Louisville forward Deng Adel said. ''We kind of felt how bad it felt to lose and go home.''
Pitino hopes they've figured it out.
''It's always my favorite time of year,'' he said. ''When I was in the pros, I missed it terribly. All the guys on the bus in the pros were talking about what team they were picking. You realize it's Russian roulette because anybody can beat you on any given night.''
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