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Louisville sticks with underdog mantra, despite preseason hype

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Though Louisville returns seven players from last season, Peyton Siva is Pitino's only star. (AP)  
Though Louisville returns seven players from last season, Peyton Siva is Pitino's only star. (AP)  

LOUISVILLE -- First Zach Price moved out of the way rather than set a good screen. Then he didn't create contact with his post defender. Then he called for the ball outside of the lane, and the only reason the freshman big man was outside of the lane was because a smaller man had moved him away from the basket.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino saw every bit of this.

He was frustrated, obviously.

"You act like Patrick Ewing's guarding you," Pitino said to Price. "But it's Jared Swopshire!"

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Much of the Cardinals' first real practice went this way -- with Pitino stopping to instruct and motivate Price. It happened so often one observer joked how tough a "Zach Price drinking game" might be. But what the two-hour workout really showed is just how otherwise experienced these Cardinals are entering the 2011-12 season.

This was, again, the first practice after Friday's Red-White Scrimmage, and, truth be told, it was a typical practice for a freshman. Zach Price was no more or less lost than most newcomers would've been. But fellow Class of 2011 signees Kevin Ware and Wayne Blackshear weren't participating because of academics, and Chane Behanan was sitting in the stands with a boot on his right foot thanks to an ankle sprain. That left Price as one of only two freshmen on the court. So he looked out of his element. And he was. But it was magnified and obvious only because his veteran teammates are so well-versed in what they're doing and plan to do next.

"Everybody knows where they need to be," said Louisville point guard Peyton Siva, and that's precisely why the Cardinals are ranked eighth in the CBSSports.com Preseason Top 25 (and one), because seven of the top nine players are back from a team that won 25 games last season and finished tied for third in the Big East -- otherwise known as nine spots ahead of the eventual national champions (Connecticut).

Siva is the star of the team.

He's also the only star.

And that's why it's a little tricky placing the Cardinals in the top 10.

On one hand, they return seven of their top nine and add two McDonald's All-Americans in Behanan and Blackshear (provided the latter gets through the NCAA Clearinghouse). On the other, they're likely to start two players who are technically listed as walk-ons, and that's just not the type of thing top-10 teams typically do.

Bottom line, the Cardinals were better than the sum of their parts last season.

They were, for lack of a better phrase, overachieving underdogs.

"But we never talked about being underdogs," Pitino said. "If you talk about being underdogs at the University of Louisville, it just doesn't bode well. So all we talk about is offensive and defensive execution. And these guys are such a together group."

Which is the key to success for the Cardinals.

They understood to a man last year that they weren't talented enough individually to compete in the top half of the Big East, so they bought in to a team-first concept early and surprised the nation when they blasted Butler in the season opener and then won 12 Big East games. It was fun to watch and, Pitino said, fun to coach. But sometimes that type of unexpected success can change agendas, and so the Hall of Fame coach acknowledged he was "curious" to see whether his veterans would return to campus the same way they left or with a mindset that could work against everything that worked last season.

The verdict?

"They're the same group," Pitino said. "These guys have zero ego."

And they don't mind the overachieving-underdog label, either.

"A lot of people say we don't have standouts, but that's OK," Siva said. "What that means is that you can't just key on one player, and we use that to our advantage. If people don't want to say we've got great individual players, that's fine. We'll just try to kill you from different spots, and there aren't a lot of teams that can do it that way. So I think it's one of our strengths."


Gary Parrish is a senior college basketball columnist for CBSSports.com and frequent contributor to the CBS Sports Network. The Mississippi native also hosts the highest-rated sports talk radio show -- The Gary Parrish Show -- in the history of Memphis. He lives in that area with his wife, two children and a dog.
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