While the mantle of “college basketball’s most controversial coach” is unlikely in any real danger of changing, the last year and a half has surely led to Rick Pitino entering the conversation. Everyone who’s anyone in college basketball has an answer to one of the sport’s biggest off-the-court questions: “do you think Pitino knew?”
But rather than let that question and the shadow surrounding it sink him, Pitino has his Cardinals flying high yet again. He is leading his eighth ranked team down the stretch with the talent, credentials and play to make a serious tournament run. What was originally believed to be a two year championship plan mirroring the 2011 to 2013 duet is quickly shaping up to be one of the Hall of Famer’s best teams ever in a wide open title race.
Despite the specter likely preventing any true National Coach of the Year buzz, Pitino’s work this season is undoubtedly some of the nation’s best.
The departures of Damien Lee, Trey Lewis and Chinanu Onuaku last season left Louisville without proven production. Cardinals entered this year with two seniors and only two players with true tournament experience. The hope for a successful season rested on the shoulders of players like Quentin Snider, Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel who had to transition from supporting cast members to leading men.
Pitino started the transformation early, having rising sophomores Adel and Mitchell undergo intense preparation for their new roles. It paid off quickly as the pair became the talk of Adidas’ summer camp, and were tabbed by several outlets as potential breakout stars. Snider too had improved, becoming a more aggressive offensive force and gaining the awareness to stay out of foul trouble.
Halfway through November’s Battle for Atlantis final against a blazing hot Baylor team, the Cards appeared to be the absolute real deal. They lead 39-24 at the half and reached a win probability of 98 percent. But when the Bears clawed back from their 22 point deficit to stun Louisville, Pitino put the blame solely on himself.
“So they were tired, these two guys (Quentin Snider and Donovan Mitchell) in particular,” Pitino told reporters after the defeat. “Because it’s their third game in three nights. And unfortunately, we’re not very deep right now because of our scholarship limitations, and we’ve got to use David Levitch and Ryan McMahon more. So this loss is on me.”
Since his admitted mistake, Pitino’s in-game decision making has been nothing short of excellent. Monday’s overtime win against an emotional and surging Syracuse was made possible thanks to the work of McMahon, who entered the game cold in the extra period to become the hero with seven critical points. Any UofL fan would have thrown the more experienced Levitch into the situation, but McMahon revealed himself to be the perfect man to steal the victory.
Perhaps Pitino’s biggest accomplishment this season to date has been navigating the countless setbacks that have riddled the team. Louisville players have missed a combined 17 games due to injury or suspension. First it was center Anas Mahmoud leaving an already inconsistent frontcourt thinner. Then it was the back to back huge blows of Quentin Snider and Tony Hicks who both were playing sound basketball.
Then there was the suspension of Deng and senior captain Mangok Mathiang just before a crucial rematch with Virginia. While some critics saw Pitino’s move as a representative display for NCAA officials on his compliance, the decision further conveys how much Pitino has invested into this season.
The suspension, which may have been skirted by other coaches, all but confirmed the Cardinals’ fate against the already Kryptonian Cavaliers. Meanwhile, many fans saw it to be a plea from the coach to his team. If they’re going to make the title run that they have the talent to complete, it is going to take a higher level of discipline and team cohesion than has already been shown.
This was just the latest in a series of challenges that Pitino has issued the team throughout the year. When Donovan Mitchell’s play became fractured and inconsistent, Pitino sentenced him the bench hoping he’d sort things out. He answered with a 25 point performance against Indiana, beginning a run that has led him to the top of many ACC player of the year lists.
The same can be said for Tony Hicks who answered the call to replace Quentin Snider after injury and had begun to play strongly before suffering an injury of his own.
Pitino has also managed the Louisville frontcourt well. Turning was expected to be a weakness into a deep unit helping lead the team to the 7th best block percentage in the nation.
Challenge after challenge made by the coach has been taken and accepted by the team. Monday’s Syracuse game showed them involved in all segments. They scrapped, they fought and they never gave up. Even on the bench, Louisville consistently looked like the team that wanted it more. The result was a victory where they essentially should have lost. The pieces continued to come together.
Pitino has pulled off this kind of reinvention before. After the extortion case that opened a door into his personal issues, Pitino was able to put together a final four and championship in back to back years. In the process he created a team that was not just a joy to watch on the court, but off the court as well.
It is hard not to look at this year’s iteration of Louisville basketball without being reminded of that era. Pitino has emerged from the embarrassment of scandal with as compelling and talented a team he’s ever coached. They are exciting to see, they are easy to root for and they have more area kids than we’ve seen on a Louisville team in a long time.
With five regular season match-ups remaining, Pitino gets to showcase another area of strength.
Despite the killer schedule, brutal conference competition and several setbacks, Pitino has this team right where he wants them. They can play the best defense in the country and have a dearth of talent ready to show up on any night.
With this team behind him, the final portions to Pitino’s latest coaching masterpiece may be as exciting as they get.
Gabe Duverge joined The Cardinal Connect as a contributing writer in the summer of 2013. He has previously written for Bleacher Report and LouisvilleKY.com. You can follow Gabe on Twitter @GabeDuverge.