Pitino, Cardinals face former assistant in Cincinnati’s Cronin

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – Rick Pitino can hear the frustration in Mick Cronin’s voice. It’s the sound of a young coach trying to get a handle on his team.

But the Louisville coach keeps reminding his former assistant, now the head coach at Cincinnati, that the Bearcats’ current struggles have little to do with coaching and everything to do with trying to rebuild in the brutal Big East.

“I don’t think he’s going through anything bad, I think he’s going through what everybody expected,” Pitino said. “When you rebuild in the Big East, it’s supposed to be like this. This is the journey you’re on, whether it’s Rutgers or whether it’s Cincinnati. When you take over a program and you bring in all new players, you’re supposed to go through this.”

Maybe, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t taken a toll on Cronin. The Bearcats (10-10 overall, 1-5 Big East) host the Cardinals (15-6, 5-2) on Wednesday night trying to find their footing.

“He’s as competitive as any team in this conference,” Pitino said. “Their record is not indicative of what they can do.”

Cronin served as an assistant under Pitino from 2001-2003, helping the Cardinals recruit the players that would be the building blocks of their 2005 Final Four team, including forward Francisco Garcia and guard Taquan Dean. He left to become head coach at Murray State, where he won 69 games in three seasons and twice led the Racers to the NCAA Tournament before taking over at his alma mater last spring.

The transition, however, has been difficult. The Bearcats returned just one starter, forcing Cronin to spend much of the season trying to work in new faces. The results have been mixed, from disappointing home losses to Wofford and UAB to wins over Xavier and West Virginia.

“It takes a little time cultivating,” Pitino said. “The most important thing is to make your players have fun, get them positive about your program, get some help in recruiting, and you’ll be back in no time. But don’t let your competitive juices turn into anything but positives.”

It’s a lesson Cronin could draw from Pitino, who remained upbeat despite a rocky nonconference schedule that seemed to leave his young team shaken. Rather than panic, Pitino told the Cardinals to keep working and get healthy.

They’ve done both and enter the midpoint of the Big East season playing their best basketball of the season. Louisville has won three straight games, including a 76-71 win over Syracuse on Saturday night as the Cardinals rallied from a 14-point second-half deficit.

“We’ve never gotten down, never felt sorry for ourselves,” Pitino said. “We’ve just fought through the adversity … (but) it’s a long train ride.”

A ride that seems to have a different conductor every night. Seven different players have led the Cardinals in scoring this season, including three in each of their last three games. That diversity means Louisville can be difficult to guard but also difficult to predict.

“You’ll see on a given night with anybody where one player will carry a team, we really don’t have that,” Pitino said. “You’ll see guys that will give you consistently 19, 18, 17, that’s not the way it is with us. You couldn’t pick the high scorer on our basketball team on a given night.”

Instead, Pitino will have to hope the growth his team has showed over the last three weeks continues. It’s growth that leaves senior guard Brandon Jenkins optimistic the Cardinals can keep it going against the Bearcats, even though Jenkins knows the coach who recruited him to Louisville will be ready.

“My biggest concern’s that Mick knows everything we’re going to do,” Jenkins said. “He pretty much knows all our plays, so we’ve got to kind of switch it up a little bit. We’ll definitely (have a few surprises).”