It’s no secret that the events that have comprised the last 12 months may have accounted for the the best of Rick Pitino’s 60-year existence on Earth. Since the calendar turned to 2013 he’s taken his Louisville Cardinals to their second Final Four in as many years, closed the deal with a National Championship, owned a horse in the Kentucky Derby, gained induction to both #teamtatted and the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, caught a big-ass white marlin in the Bahamas (all the while having the presence of mind to both sport a fanny pack and throw the Ls up in the photographical proof), hung out with Pitbull in Miami (I don’t know if hanging out with Pitbull is “cool” per se, but hey… Whatever), and finally came to grips with the fact that getting as far away from the University of Kentucky as possible is the best decision that any human, himself included, could possibly make for themselves.
Though basketball season is far from tipping off, and three months have at least partially decreased the luster and euphoria that came with cutting the nets in Atlanta, the good times continue to roll for Pitino and, by association, the Louisville fan base as a whole. Just last week Pitino added five-star guard JaQuan Lyle to an already solid 2014 recruiting class.
Obviously, this is not the start of Pitino’s success here at UofL, and since it will be a while before any action takes place on the floor of the KFC Yum! Center, it’s worth reliving past glory by discussing the ultimate 12-man roster of the Rick Pitino Era.
Many things must be considered to deem a player worthy of inclusion on this elite team; Individual skill, team success, ability to play a role, performance in the clutch, etc. This roster was hard to compile. Many players were left out; some because of the impossibility of forecasting the rest of a career (Montrezl Harrell, Chane Behanan) and some because of unpredictability and inconsistency (Edgar Sosa, Preston Knowles, Behanan). This is a conversation well worth having in the middle of summer, so feel free to tell me where I’m right and where I’m wrong.
Here’s my ultimate 12-man roster comprised solely of players from Rick Pitino’s tenure at Louisville. My only request is that they wear the Infrared uniforms. Is that too much to ask?
1. Peyton Siva (point guard) – No, he doesn’t shoot the ball well consistently. Yes, he has a tendency to over-penetrate and kill offensive flow. Siva does, however, have two attributes that make him the best point guard to play under Rick Pitino at Louisville. The first is heart. During his career, Peyton has overcome midseason slumps, fan criticism, and self doubt to become the heart and soul of a team that went to back-to-back Final Fours and captured one national title. The second is his nonstop defensive effort and intensity. Despite all of his offensive shortcomings (which there really aren’t a lot of), Peyton was the posterboy of the full-court press that has become Pitino’s trademark and Louisville’s identity. Lastly, for Siva, the numbers that he compiled over four seasons speak for themselves. He’s the only player not named Patrick Ewing to win back-to-back Big East Tournament MVPs, Louisville’s all-time steals leader, Louisville second all-time leader in assists, a two-time Final Four participant, and a one-time national champion. The doubts about Siva end now. He’s a smart, athletic point guard with immeasurable heart and the undisputed leader of two great teams.
Reece Gaines (shooting guard) – Probably the best player Pitino has had at Louisville, Gaines’ talent and accomplishments are undeniable. In addition to being a killer shooter and scorer (fourth all-time at Louisville), Gaines was also a great passer (he’s in the top five all-time for assists at Louisville) and a great defender (he’s also top five in steals). As much as the numbers speak to the greatness of number 22, there are YouTube search-worthy moments of his Cardinal career that cement his legend and never fail to induce goosebumps. One being his fearless pull-up three to beat Marquette in their building with under five seconds remaining, and another being his downing of two of three Louisville three-pointers in 30 seconds that capped a comeback over Tennessee in Freedom Hall. Reece also led the Cards to a 2003 Conference USA Tournament championship with a win over Marquette (which had some guy named Dwayne Wade who led them to a Final Four that same year).
Francisco Garcia (small forward) – Before finding longevity in the NBA, Garcia served as a leader on a handful of very talented Louisville teams, including the 2003 C-USA championship team and the 2005 team that made it all the way to St. Louis for the Final Four. Garcia, who averaged nearly 15 points for his career, was a long, solid defender with NBA size and a very reliable shooter. Garcia shot nearly 45 percent from the field for his career and almost 85 percent from the line (a stat that should never be taken for granted by Louisville fans, especially after last year). Anyone who watched him knew that Garcia’s presence on the court was key for Louisville.
Earl Clark (power forward) – One of the more NBA-ready players that Louisville has had in recent years, Clark played on a 2008 Louisville team that brought the program its first-ever no. 1 ranking and landed the tournament’s top overall seed. In his final season as a Cardinal before turning pro, Clark averaged 14.2 points and nearly nine boards per game as a junior. At 6’10, Earl was a good midrange shooter and could take many of the slower, less agile forwards that marked him, off the bounce (type “Earl Clark Luke Harangody” in a search box and see what you find). Although I’ve often questioned his heart when looking back at the Elite Eight losses to North Carolina and Michigan State in consecutive years, the more I look back on his accomplishments and highlights (most notably his dagger to lift Louisville over then-no. 1 Pitt), the more I miss hearing the words “EEEEEE-FIIIVEEE…Clark!” fill Freedom Hall.
Gorgui Dieng (center) – Gorgui Dieng may be the most beloved player of the Pitino Era. On the court we love him because of his shot blocking/altering, his post passing, his elbow jumper, and his leading the Cards to two Final Four appearances and a National Championship. Off the court we love him for his accent, his contagious smile, his humility, his oblivious parents, his smarts, his heart and the genuine sincerity with which he speaks. I could make an on-court argument for why Gorgui would be the starting center on an all-Pitino team, but I’m not sure that anyone would disagree in the first place.
Terrence Williams (small forward) – Much like the Gorgster, T-Will is one of the more beloved characters to play under Pitino. The fun-loving, freakishly athletic small forward was a constantly energetic and passionate player who served as a do-everything forward/guard for a handful of very good UofL teams. His career averages of 11 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists per game are solid, but his numbers become truly impressive when you look at his placement among the all-time Cardinal statistical leaders. T-Will ranks inside the top 20 in points, is third in assists and seventh in rebounds. In addition, he also posted two triple-doubles in his career; a feat that is very rare in the college game. Numbers aside, and without mentioning the knuckle-headedness he’s displayed at the professional level, Williams was just plain fun. From his SportsCenter-worthy dunks to his playful pregame antics, T-Will combined tremendous talent with a one-of-a-kind personality.
David Padgett (center) – In the three seasons he spent as a Cardinal after transferring from Kansas, Padgett became a very solid center and part of the very good Williams-Clark-Padgett frontcourt. Serving as something of a point-center for the Cards, Padgett did everything that you could ask for out of a big guy: He was good rebounder, a reliable free-throw shooter, a smart passer out of the high post who allowed the Cardinal offense to flow, and a coach on the floor. Padgett was one of the better big men in a Big East that featured Roy Hibbert, Luke Harangody, and DeJuan Blair and a much-needed calming presence on a team that featured the likes of Terrence Williams and Edgar Sosa.
Taquan Dean (shooting guard) – The first thing I remember every time I hear the name Taquan Dean is an image of Dean on his hands and knees at halfcourt, kissing the Cardinal logo at the center of Freedom Hall’s floor. The picture graced the front page of the Courier Journal’s sport’s section the day after a Senior Night overtime win against Marquette. Taquan’s best season came in ’04-’05 when he helped lead the Cards to a Final Four with his season-long hot streak from beyond the three-point line. He shot 44.7 percent from beyond the arc that year, and set a Louisville single-season record with 122 threes. Before leading the Cards to St. Louis for Pitino’s first Final Four at UofL, Dean was named MVP of the Conference USA Tournament after the now infamous win over Memphis. Taquan didn’t have to stay. After that season, Francisco Garcia, Ellis Myles, and Larry O’Bannon were all gone, either to graduation or the NBA Draft. Despite a solid individual year (17 ppg, 5.6 rpg), the season was mundane and ended in the Cards missing the Tournament. Dean could have taken an early shot at the pros. He could have abandoned the young team, on which he was the lone senior, and left Rick Pitino to groom a team of underclassmen entering the school’s inaugural Big East season. But I’m glad he didn’t. I’m glad that he stuck around for a season that was doomed from the inception of conference play. I’m glad that my outstanding memory of Taquan Dean is of him, face to the ground, kissing the floor of Freedom Hall.
Ellis Myles (center) – Ellis Myles is probably most known by Louisville fans for being the troubled kid from Compton who embraced Rick Pitino’s tough-love coaching style to develop an unbelievable work ethic and become a great leader. After redshirting the ’03-’04 season due to a knee injury, Myles‘ best season came as a senior, when he served as a captain on the ’04-’05 Final Four team. That season he nearly averaged a double-double by posting 10.4 ppg and 9.2 rpg. For his career, Myles scored 1,045 points and fell just two rebounds short of 1,000. In 2007, Myles was brought in as an assistant on Pitino’s staff to serve as a mentor for Derrick Caracter. Needless to say, Caracter didn’t become a tenth of the player that Ellis was. You can give a troubled young player all the help you can offer, but unless, like Myles, they grow up and decide to respect and embrace hard work, words can only go so far.
Russ Smith (shooting guard) – Including Russ Smith on an all-Pitino team may be a stretch at first glance, but there’s a lot to consider about the erratic guard from Brooklyn. Although undersized, Smith is a dynamite scorer, and a lightning-quick gnat of a defender whose energy is as relentless as a seven year-old after their first Red Bull. All before his senior season, Smith has been a key contributor to Final Four and National Championship runs, spent a great deal of his junior season on the National Player of the Year radar, and eclipsed the 1,000 career points mark. All of this is without mentioning the great improvements he made from his sophomore to junior seasons. Last season, Russ averaged 18 points per, shot 41.4 percent from the floor (up six percent from the previous year and a fantastic percentage for the type of shots he takes) and 80 percent from the line (up from 76 percent), while also improving his averages in rebounds and assists. Although still well worthy of the moniker “Russdiculous,” the improvements in Smith’s game resulted in a longer leash from Pitino, and at times it felt as if Russ was (I can’t believe I’m typing this) a calming presence on the floor. Someone (still can’t believe it) who’s hands you wanted the ball in when the team was defending a lead or in need of clutch free-throws. If the dramatic upward swings in Russ Smith’s game are indicative of what we’ll receive in the upcoming season, who knows what we’ll say about Russ Smith by the time he graduates.
Larry O’Bannon (guard/forward) – As great as it is to have a superstar player with loads of talent from some other part of the country, it feels a little better to have a hometown hero to root for. O’Bannon really came on as a junior for the Cards in ’03-’04, when he saw his first dose of big playing time. In his senior season, as part of the ’05 Final Four squad, O’Bannon came into his own as a legitimate shooter and scorer. In that season, O’Bannon averaged 15.2 ppg, while shooting 49 and 42.5 percent from the field and free-throw line respectively. Larry also had several games as a senior that standout as absolute gems in the memories of Cardinal fans. Most notably his 33-point outing on senior night against UNC-Charlotte and his 24-point, 5-5 from three effort against DePaul just two days later.
Luke Hancock (shooting guard) – People will want to complain about this pick, and that’s fine, but before you do, consider the fact that if Luke Hancock had never transferred to Louisville after Jim Larranaga’s departure from George Mason, Michigan would be the 2013 NCAA Men’s Basketball Champions, Spike Albrecht jerseys would be a thing, and the University of Louisville would still be searching for its third title. The much-hyped Hancock definitely struggled in his first half-season as a Cardinal. He missed free-throws, he missed open looks from three that Louisville fans were told to believe he could hit in his sleep, and he at times looked out of place on the court. That all changed drastically when Cool Hand Luke knocked down a coldblooded three in a revenge game at Syracuse that would eventually become a UofL victory. Hancock would ride the momentum and confidence from that clutch shot all the way to a Final Four Most Outstanding Player award. The numbers from his first season in Louisville aren’t eye-popping, but in Hancock’s case numbers don’t tell the entire story. What does tell the story is the image of him kneeled over an injured Kevin Ware during his horrific leg break, the win-preserving tie-up off his missed free-throw in the waning seconds against Wichita State in the Final Four, and his three-point explosion to end the first half and propel the Cardinals to victory against Michigan. Without Luke Hancock, Louisville doesn’t win a National Championship. Other than Hancock, that’s something that can only be said about Darrell Griffith and Pervis Ellison. That’s more impressive than any statistic could be.
Tough exclusions: Edgar Sosa, Luke Whitehead, Chane Behanan, Jerry Smith, Preston Knowles, Chad Millard (… Just kidding).