ORLANDO, Fla. – Luke Hancock started the second half of his masterful game Saturday with a two-word compliment for an official.
The Louisville forward came over to a referee immediately before the first inbounds pass of the final 20 minutes and brought up a kicked ball call made in the first half. Hancock complained when the whistle blew. But during halftime he changed his mind.
"Great call," he told the ref, grinning.
Hancock, whose 21 points were the difference in Louisville's 66-51 third-round victory over Saint Louis to advance to the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis next week, seems to be aware of his surroundings as if he's watching game film in his head. His "Cool Hand Luke" demeanor is earned because of his clutch shooting in tense situations – his consecutive threes on Thursday and again here in the second half today against the Billikens turned both games – but that reputation is earned from more than just his touch.
"He's really smart," said Saint Louis coach Jim Crews after his team's loss. "He reads screens really well. It's like cat and mouse with him. Most guys watch the ball; he watches the player. It's like playing tag with your sister or brother; if one goes under the table, the other goes over the table."
Hancock, true to form, shrugged when asked about that.
"That's all you need to worry about," he said. "Setting that guy up."
He credited scouting, saying coaches tell him who's a face-guarder and who chases off screens. He said he's prepared when he gets onto the court, so he shouldn't need to stress.
"There's not much pressure on me," he explained. "I play with such studs."
Yes and no. Hancock has Russ Smith as a teammate, who draws all kinds of attention, but it was Hancock who took the baton when Smith struggled to score 11 points on Saturday. Without the senior from Roanoke, Va., the Cards might not be alive in their quest to defend their national title.
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Head coach Rick Pitino said the one thing Smith needs to complete his game is an understanding of how other teams will play him. Pitino asked Smith to imagine what the coaches in the opposing locker room would do if tasked with defending him. The answer came quickly: suffocate Smith. So Smith's response to that should be "let the game come to him," in the coach's words.
"He doesn't understand the scouting of another team," Pitino said.
That's an indirect compliment of Hancock, who clearly does. It was Hancock who took over when Saint Louis came out of nowhere to take the lead in the second half. Smith got lost in the trees while Hancock lingered away from the paint, once again seeming apart from the fray. Pitino had his team watch Florida's victory earlier in the day and told his players their game would be every bit as physical and frustrating. He told them to be the "prettiest team in an ugly game." They were pretty enough because Hancock found a way to play a pretty game.
Louisville moves on to the site of a very ugly scene: Lucas Oil Stadium, where Kevin Ware suffered a heinous leg fracture during last year's tournament. While everyone else reacted to the injury with fear and anguish, Hancock calmly went over to his teammate, reassured him, and said a prayer. It was another example of Hancock acting as if he had plenty of time to think everything through even though he had only a split-second to react.
"That incident," Hancock said, "will be with me forever."
A lot of the attention will shift back to Kevin Ware in the coming days, and on-court attention will go back to Russ Smith. That works well for Hancock and for Pitino. The 6-foot-6 shooter will figure out more ways to get lost in plain sight. Asked on Saturday if there's any other player in his long career who reminded him of Hancock, the always-articulate Pitino had to think.
"Not really," is all he could muster.
Perhaps there's no better two-word compliment than that.
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