Pitino and Louisville Rise Up

By Dennis Berry

Stop me if you have heard this one before.

A Big East team finishes in the middle of the pack in the conference standings during the regular season. The team goes into the Big East Tournament losing their final two regular season games. Once the Big East Tournament starts, a light clicks and they being to play better basketball.

The team wins the Big East Tournament and carries the momentum into the NCAA Tournament. They continue their strong play and it carries them all the way to the NCAA Final Four. They are led by the strong play of their point guard and coached by a Hall of Fame worthy coach.

Know which team am I speaking of?

If you said the Connecticut Huskies from last year you would be correct. That is what the Huskies did on their way to the NCAA Title last year. It also is the same thing the Louisville Cardinals have done this year.

There only differences are that Connecticut won the title, Louisville will get their chance this weekend in New Orleans. The Cardinals went 10-8 and finished sixth in the Big East standings; Connecticut went 9-9 and finished ninth. Connecticut won five games in five days in the Big East Tournament; Louisville won four games in four days.

The one person who seems to be enjoying this ride more the Louisville players is Head Coach Rick Pitino. The last time Pitino was in a Final Four was in 2005 with Louisville. They lost in the National Semi-Finals to eventual runner up Illinois.

That has to seem so long ago for Pitino. He has been to the Elite Eight twice since that run in 2008 and 2009. Though the Cardinals have lost in the first round twice (2010 and 2011) and the second round in 2007. There was even a NIT year in 2006.

Pitino and Louisville Rise Up
University of Louisville head coach Rick Pitino against the University of Pittsburgh in their NCAA basketball game at KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Kentucky.

Pitino even had his problems off the court. He had to deal with the repercussions of his one night stand with Karen Sypher. She claimed that Pitino and she had sex (which Pitino confirmed) and that Pitino paid her to have an abortion. Sypher tried to extort money from to keep quiet about their relationship. She is now in jail after being found guilty of extortion.

Also during that time Kentucky hired John Calipari as Head Coach and the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry has gone to new heights. While Calipari has been to at least the Elite Eight in each of his three seasons, Pitino had two first round loses (California in 2010 and Morehead State in 2011) until this year.

So while Louisville was struggling, their fans were dealing with the resurgence of Kentucky. Louisville fans had to watch as Kentucky fans were enjoying being ranked in the top five, top recruiting classes, and deep post-season runs. Even some fans began to wonder if Pitino was still able to get the job done.

Then Pitino announced at the end of 2011 that when his contract ran out in 2017 he would retire. It seemed an odd time to announce one's retirement. He will be 64 years old then, but would believe that announcement would be better to save till closer to 2017.

This year was a struggle at times for Louisville. After starting 12-0, they finished the rest of the season only 14-9. The Cardinals did not shoot the ball as well they did in 2011 and their offense was only middle of the pack averaging 68.4 points a game.

So how did the Pitino turn the Cardinals around? First he got the team to buy into defense. During their current eight game winning streak the Cardinals are only giving up 56 points a game, with only Marquette scoring over 70 points. Louisville pressure defense is causing turnovers which are allowing the Cardinals to run and score in translation.

The rise of Peyton Siva's play at point guard has been instrumental too. Siva has calmed down and is running the offense now. Whereas before Siva forced the issue by taking wild shots or making poor passes in the half court offense. Now Siva is the unquestioned leader on the floor.

Pitino himself even seems to be having a ball during all of this. After the Cardinals won Pitino said, "outside of the birth of my children, this is the happiest day of my life."

He is as loose coaching as he has been coaching in sometime. This coaching job by Pitino shows that he deserves to be in the Basketball Hall of Fame. It is shame he is not already there.

Now Pitino will have an even bigger challenge ahead of him. Louisville will play Kentucky in the Final Four on Saturday. Pitino knows both sides of this rivalry. He has already started with the head games in the post game conference after winning the West Regional.

"There will be people at Kentucky that will have a nervous breakdown if they lose to us," Pitino said. "You've got to watch. They've got to put the fences up on bridges. There will be people consumed by Louisville."

Louisville lost 69-62 at Kentucky on December 31. The Cardinals only trailed by three at halftime before Kentucky pulled away in the second half. Pitino will have a week to prepare a game plan to knock off the Wildcats.

While Pitino may try to downplay the rivalry, you have to believe that a win over Kentucky in the Final Four would rank up there as one of the best of his career.

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