Seeking a way to inject some fun into what he calls "the dog days of February," Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino has borrowed a tactic from the 2013 World Series champion Boston Red Sox and issued a no-shave edict as long as the Cardinals keep winning.
And if the early opinions of his players are any indication, the strategy is a big hit.
"Keeping us loose and having fun, that's what it is," tri-captain and starting forward Luke Hancock says. "Something to kind of bring us together more." "When Coach Pitino told us we were going to grow beards, we all thought it would be kind of cool," center Stephan Van Treese says. "I think it's fun. I've never seen Coach with a beard, so I feel everyone in the whole city will enjoy it in a sense. It's a little change, makes the locker room a lot more fun."
Let's have a little fun ourselves. I asked a few of the players which coach or player they felt would grow the best beard. Van Treese chose assistant coach Wyking Jones, who he predicted was eventually going to look like full-bearded rapper Rick Ross.
However, Van Treese added that Hancock would be difficult to beat. "I think Luke's beard is going to be great because it's so full."
In fact, Hancock is already claiming the prize. "No one's going to beat my beard," he says.
Don't expect freshman point guard Terry Rozier to compete for best beard honors. "I have never shaved in my life," he admitted with a smile. David Levitch, a baby-faced freshman walk-on, falls into much the same category as Rozier.
"I don't know if you can see it, but I've got a little (growth) here and here," Levitch said, pointing to his chin (and no, we couldn't see it). "I only shave about once a month." As for Pitino's facial growth, Hancock says, "He's going to have the worst beard. I don't know how it's going to work. We'll see. It's kind of coming in, so we'll give him a little bit longer and see where it goes."
Pitino says he has "multifacted hair coming in," adding that it's the first time in his life he's tried to grow a beard.
"It's kind of funny seeing coach with a little scruff growing out," Van Treese says. "I've never seen it in five years here; he's always been clean cut." First a tattoo and then a beard. What's next for the 60-year-old Pitino?
"I may start riding a motorcycle like Al McGuire," Pitino joked, referring to the late, free-spirited Marquette coach. If Pitino starts talking about seashells and balloons, as McGuire often did, we'll know his transformation is complete.
"It really is about having fun," Pitino says of the whiskers. "I think we've had fun the last three years and I think it's paid huge dividends. It gets guys to focus in. But we don't know how long it's going to go because we have a very tough stretch coming up. But it will be some fun, and hopefully if we have some luck maybe we can go a long time." The hope, of course, is that the Cards' beards will approach ZZ Top length before the time comes to shave, which ideally would be after the Final Four in Dallas. Since a 69-66 loss to Cincinnati on Jan. 30, No. 11/5 UofL (21-4, 10-2 AAC)) has won four in a row and should easily make it five straight in Tuesday night's game against hapless South Florida (12-14, 3-10), a team it clobbered 86-47 a few weeks ago in Tampa.
Then it gets hairy. The Cards have been razor sharp in their four wins over the worst teams in the American Athletic Conference, but they'll be hard-pressed to make sure they keep their beards growing Saturday in a showdown with the No. 7/9 Bearcats (23-3, 12-1) in Fifth Third Arena.
Then comes a brief respite against Temple (7-17, 2-10) in the KFC Yum! Center before the Cards take to the road again at No. 22/24 Memphis (19-6, 8-4) and SMU (20-6, 9-4), then wind up the regular season at home against No. 21 Connecticut (20-5, 8-5) on March 8.
"With this league and college basketball in general, you just really have no idea how an opponent will play," Pitino says. "So what you have to do is just stay focused, try to take away their strengths, and try to make sure you're clicking on all cylinders. And our guys have been very good at that."
LEVITCH AN 'ASSASSIN' Levitch had the best time of his life as a Cardinal in Sunday's rout of Rutgers, scoring a career-best four points on a 3-pointer from the corner and a free throw after entering the game with 4:41 remaining. The crowd erupted in cheers when Levitch nailed the three, and his teammates on the bench laughed and applauded. But Levitch was low-key about his performance.
"It was fun," he said simply.
Levitch, a 6-3 guard from Goshen, Ky., had appeared in 12 previous games for a total of 33 minutes and had scored 10 points. But Pitino expects Levitch's contributions to increase later in his career.
"Look, he's going to be a very good basketball player," Pitino says. "Down the road his junior and senior years, he's not like a guy I put in at the very end. He's going to get to play the same as Tim Henderson (a senior and former walk-on). He has very good offensive skills. Now, he's weak and he can't guard anybody, but offensively he's very clever as a passer and he's a very good ball-handler. He's going to be a very good shooter as he gets stronger."
Besides being a fan favorite, he is also obviously well-liked by his teammates, who have tagged him with numerous nicknames. Sunday, ESPN color commentator Dan Dakich even got into the act, calling Levitch the "Baby-faced Assassin."
"That's pretty perfect, in my estimation," Van Treese says. "When he gets in, he wants to score, so we love it."
Hancock also liked Dakich's description. "That's my favorite one now," he says. "That's awesome."
At various times, Levitch has also been called 'Pistol,' as in Pistol Pete Maravich, 'Triple D,' and 'Baby Jones.'
PITINO SEEKS BALANCE Louisville's 21.3-point winning margin leads Division I, 3.7 points ahead of Louisiana Tech, and the Cards are tied with UCLA for 10th in scoring offense at 83.1 ppg. But Pitino emphasis is still on defense, while also wanting a balance, with an effecient offense complementing the defense.
"I'm a firm believer in offense," Pitino says. "We went to a Final Four at Providence being a great offensive basketball team. But what you always want as your common denominator is defense because there's always one game where you must be the better defensive team to win in the tournament. Sometimes two games.
"You've got to rely on your defense when your offense isn't there. And it's certainly something I believe in because I think that's what tournament teams are all about. I think you witnessed with the Seattle-Denver (Super Bowl) game that defense wins championships. You've heard that cliche' over and over, but it's true. So it's really what sports is all about. Now you want, obviously, to be a good offensive team as well and certainly we have the potential to be that."