Louisville Opens New Home With Win, New Look Team
"The last game at Freedom Hall (on March 6) was 'Senior Night,' " Pitino told FanHouse. "We had to beat (Syracuse) to make the NCAA tournament and they were No. 1 in the country. We had just beat them 10 days prior to that and it was Freedom Hall closing. So that was pressure."
From the opening tip, the Cardinals were really never pressured by the No. 16 Bulldogs, opening their new $238 million palace in impressive fashion with an 88-73 victory.
While Pitino said there was more pressure in the Freedom Hall finale, Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich disagreed. "There was more pressure tonight," said Jurich, from one of the 71 luxury suites that encircles "Pitino's Palace" or "the House That Jurich Built."
Whatever the new arena is called, it's an impressive structure -- even though some folks may not prefer the glass windows that allow motorists on Second Street to see inside the building.
Pitino calls the arena the finest pro or college arena in America. It's got every bell and whistle imaginable and even has five dressing rooms for the radio and TV personnel, complete with showers, leather couches and flat screen TVs allowing the radio/TV talent to -- as ESPN's Dick Vitale, who was on hand Tuesday would probably say -- "Get a shower, baby!"
Even though it rained all day Tuesday, nothing could dampen the Cardinals' christening of their new digs. Especially the way they dominated last year's national runners-up.
"This was an unexpected victory in the way we played the first half," Pitino admitted. "We thought we could win, we didn't expect to play as well as we did."
In fact, outside of those wearing red and black, not much is expected of Louisville this season. The Cardinals were picked to finish eighth in the Big East, but Butler coach Brad Stevens saw enough to know the Cardinals are not a middle-of-the-pack club.
"They're really good and don't let anyone else tell you they are not," Stevens said. "They've got 10 or 11 players that can play at a lot places. So all the Big East predictions are probably wrong based on what I've seen watching two games on film."
What's ironic is the best thing about this team is that it's old-school, Pitino said. The Cardinals are an old-fashioned team playing in the newest, nicest arena in America.
"I knew we would get better, a lot better," Pitino said. "I knew our attitude is better. This is an old-fashioned team, like my early years at UK (Kentucky), that there's nobody thinking of when they're going to make that next step to the league. All they're thinking about is developing their game. It's a lot of fun.
"A little old-fashioned team that really likes the style of play, is willing to pay the price and they're going to get a lot better. That freshman class (this year's sophomores) made a big jump in improvement. As a coach, there are two things you love to see: improvement in your players and assistant coaches getting a head coaching job. Those two things are satisfying. To see those kids get a lot better is very satisfying."
Sure, it's only one game and the NCAA Tournament bids are still a few months -- and several wins -- away, but the Cardinals have already bought into Pitino's team-first philosophy.
"This is a completely different style, a completely different team," Louisville sophomore Mike Marra said. "This year we have a lot more team chemistry. Everyone's playing a lot more together. Everyone's focusing on the win, not how many points, how many assists they're getting. That type of stuff. It's more of a common goal now.
"Obviously I think we're going to finish in the top tier of the Big East. We work hard. We know we can beat every team in the country. We're going to keep hungry and go and get it."
Because the Cardinals are void of any stars, they appear to have been underrated. However, Pitino said it's too early to "rate" his team.
"I don't know what we are," Pitino said. "How do you rate this team? I mean, we have no starters back, we don't have one player on any (all-league) teams, so how do you rate them? I couldn't rate them."
Ten Cardinals played at least seven minutes against Butler. Pitino then rattled off some of his players that others might not have thought so highly of: Stephan Van Treese, Rakeem Buckles, Peyton Siva, Elisha Justice and Gorgui Dieng.
"These guys will be better and better and better," Pitino said. "So, one win, I don't think you can rate this basketball team, it's early. But I do think this team is going to get better. I do think this team enjoys the style of play. And we are going to improve, especially when we get (senior guard) Preston (Knowles) back."
Marra summed up the experience of playing and winning the Cardinals' first game in the KFC Yum! Center as "wild."
"Once you're out there, it's all just white noise," said Marra, who attempted and made the first shot, a 3-pointer, in KFC Yum! Center history 31 seconds after the opening tip. "It's you, a hoop and your teammates. The arena is a little different, more modern. All the electronics are crazy. It's just like any other arena -- except obviously it's amazing.
"The buildup was pretty intense. The fans were great. It was so loud in here. I had flashbacks to the last game in Freedom Hall. That's how loud it was."
The finale at Freedom Hall, the 78-68 victory against Syracuse on March 6, will not be forgotten anytime soon. Neither will the Cardinals' former home for 54 years. "The old barn" as former coach Denny Crum called it, is steeped in tradition, but it's now part of the Cardinals' past.
This year's team -- and their coach -- is focused on the future.
"Everyone is excited (in the new arena), there's more energy in the building," Louisville junior Terrence Jennings said. "It's a fun place to play. Just playing in this city is fun. It really doesn't matter which arena."
Besides the obvious differences between playing in a 54-year old arena and a brand new building, another change was the smell, Jennings said. Freedom Hall is located on the state fairgrounds and featured several horse stables on the grounds. At times, one could smell the aroma of horse, uh, manure in the air.
"It does smells different here," Jennings said. "It gives you that extra 'umph' that it's our building and we want to defend it. Playing the last game at Freedom Hall and the first game here (Tuesday night), we took care of both. They're both big wins.
"No one is ever going to forget Freedom Hall, but we're also opening up with history."
Contact FanHouse senior writer Brett McMurphy at firstname.lastname@example.org or please follow at Twitter.com/BrettmcmurphY