College Basketball Nation: Louisville Cardinals
To be fair, you don't really need an introduction. You met two years ago.
You remember, right? April in Atlanta? It was the final few seconds of the Louisville Cardinals' legendary first half against Michigan -- the first half, you'll recall, that made Spike Albrecht a minor folk hero -- when Montrezl Harrell, up to his eyeballs in adrenaline, flung himself so high and so fast to catch a trailing alley-oop he drew a collective gasp from 70,000 Georgia Dome attendees. Has an arena that big ever been struck as dumb? Probably. The point is that's not the kind of dunk you forget, in a context that makes it downright impossible.
Still, some people have trouble with new faces. That was then. Harrell was an athletic engine as a freshman and a bruiser on the boards, but little else. A year later, he was a more significant piece of another 30-win Louisville team, but one that, like the rest of his teammates, mostly existed in Russ Smith's wackadoodle orbit. Harrell got better at the things he did well -- rebounding, rim finishing -- but he only needed to be so good.
In other words, say hello to the new Montrezl Harrell.
The big man's effort in Louisville's 81-68 Armed Forces Classic win over Minnesota didn't merely hint at his potential, it revealed it in full. After an offseason spent honing the finer parts of his game, and a fall spent racking up preseason accolades, Harrell's first basket of the season was a sweetly stroked 3-pointer from the left wing. He would hit two more on the night, one more than he made in his first two seasons combined. He would end the game with a career-high 30 points and seven rebounds on 9-of-12 shooting from the field (including 75 percent from 3) and 9-of-10 from the free-throw line. It was about as efficient an offensive performance as a player can have.
Even more impressive? Fifteen of Harrell's 30 points came on jump shots. By contrast, last season just 6.5 percent of Harrell's possessions ended in spot-ups, and just 4.2 percent of his touches resulted in isolations, according to Synergy sports data. There's a reason Louisville coach Rick Pitino didn't put Harrell in those situations often: When he wasn't cutting, grabbing offensive rebounds or posting up, he was inefficient.
In the matter of an offseason, Harrell has gone from a better version of his raw freshman self -- active, aggressive, unrefined -- to something else entirely. He's catching the ball in the high post, pivoting in tune with his cutters and calmly sinking jumpers when the defense sinks. He's lining up 3s with the ease of a guard. He's running interior pick-and-rolls with Louisville's guards at tidy, precise angles.
Speaking of the guards, the results were more mixed. On one end, Terry Rozier was nearly the player of the game in his own right: He had 18 points on 11 shots and a downright Smith-ian six rebounds, four assists and four steals. Backcourt mate Chris Jones, on the other hand, shot just 4-of-13 from the field, and Wayne Blackshear looked uncomfortable (and shot just 1-of-4) throughout.
That's one key question as Louisville moves forward: How much depth does Pitino really have? Jones will play better, but Blackshear, now a senior, has never quite made good on his long-ago high school hype. Despite scorching nights from their two stars, the Cardinals shot just 46 percent overall and turned the ball over on nearly a quarter of their possessions.
Then again, Louisville's defense was good enough to force Minnesota -- a solid but overmatched team coached well by Pitino's son, Richard -- into just .87 points per trip. That's been the real key to the Cardinals' ongoing run of 30-win seasons: long, smart, harrassing defense. That was another question about the Cardinals: Whether they could guard the same way without Smith, who coupled loads of scoring with relentless perimeter pressure. If they can, a balanced scoring diet won't be nearly as important.
In the meantime, there is Harrell. Every season, there is a big man who draws his coaches' raves. He's shooting 3s now! He's got great post moves! Much of the time, this is wishful thinking, and the player goes back to doing what he did before.
Harrell had alley-oops Friday night. Two of them, actually, and both were spectacular. But now Harrell is combining the things that made him intriguing in the first place -- the strength, the motor, the borderline hilarious athleticism -- with the actualized version of his own best-case scenario.
He's dunking and draining 3s. He's doing everything. He is wishful thinking made real. And it's high time we all got reacquainted.
(11) Tennessee vs (2) Michigan
The Wolverines are trying to reach a second straight Elite 8 (lost in title game last year to Louisville). Tennessee has been to just one Elite 8 in its history, when it lost to Michigan State in 2010.
Michigan's hot outside shooting has carried the team in its first two wins. The Wolverines are 21 of 45 from beyond the arc and have made 50 percent of their jump shots, second-best among tournament teams.
Over its last nine games (during which it has gone 8-1) Tennessee has held its opponents to just 26.6 percent shooting on 3-pointers and 27 percent on jump shots.
(8) Kentucky vs (4) Louisville
Get ready for another epic showdown of these Bluegrass state rivals. This is the fourth time in NCAA Tournament history that the previous two national champions will play against each other in the NCAA Tournament.
In each of the three previous occurrences, the defending champion has defeated champion from the previous season.
There will be two key matchups to watch in this game.
The first one is on the offensive glass. The Wildcats rank second in the country in offensive rebound percentage and average 15.6 second-chance points per game, the best among major conferences.
Louisville is not a great defensive rebounding team, ranking 241st in the nation, and was outscored 17-6 in second-chance points by Kentucky in their meeting on Dec. 28.
The other key matchup is whether Kentucky can handle Louisville's pressure defense, which forces 17.4 turnovers per game, the second-most in the country. Louisville is 19-0 this season when forcing 17 or more turnovers; Kentucky is 16-2 when committing 11 or fewer turnovers.
(7) Connecticut vs (3) Iowa State
The only other time these two teams met in the NCAA Tournament was in a Round of 64 win by the Cyclones in 2012. That was Jim Calhoun's final game.
With Georges Niang out for Iowa State and Connecticut lacking a dominant post offense, this game could come down to who executes better on the perimeter.
Iowa State ranks in the top 25 in 3-point attempts per game and 3-pointers made per game this season, while UConn ranks 22nd in the country in 3-point field goal percentage.
Both teams allow their opponents to make more than a third of their shots from beyond the arc, though the Huskies do a better job of limiting 3-point attempts (18.3 per game) than the Cyclones (21.2).
(4) Michigan State vs (1) Virginia
Virginia is hoping to avoid the fate of another recent first-place ACC squad. Last year Miami was the regular-season and postseason ACC champs, and they lost in the Sweet 16 vs Marquette.
The Michigan State seniors are trying to avoid making history as well. Every four-year player under coach Tom Izzo has reached the Final Four, and this is the last chance for Adreian Payne and Keith Appling to make it.
The key matchup to watch in this game will be whether Virginia can slow down the Spartans' fastbreak offense.
Transition makes up 21.9 percent of Michigan State’s offensive plays, the eighth-highest rate in the country, and the Spartans average 18.9 transition points per game, 14th-most in the nation. Virginia allows 7.4 transition points per game, third-fewest in the nation, and only 10.9 percent of Virginia’s defensive plays are transition, the fifth-lowest rate in the country.
Are choosing No. 1 seeds about who the best four teams are? Or are they about selecting the best 4 resumes using RPI data?
Using RPI data, Louisville doesn't have the best resume based solely on quality wins.
But there's certainly an argument that Louisville is one of the best four teams in college basketball, maybe even the best team.
Louisville has the best net efficiency in the country. Net efficiency is the difference in offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions) and defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions).
The Cardinals are the only team that ranks in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
Louisville ranks No. 4 in BPI, which takes into account scoring margin, opponent strength, pace, location and key players missing.
The Cardinals also rank No. 2 in KenPom rating. They rank in the top 10 in both adjusted offensive efficiency and adjusted defensive efficiency, which take into account opponent strength.
Louisville has 19 wins by at least 20 points this season. No other team has more than 15 such wins.
The Cardinals have no bad losses, something that can't be said for Duke, Michigan and Villanova. Each of Louisville's five losses are by single digits against teams ranked in the top 50 in both BPI and RPI.
It's often mentioned that the NCAA selection committee evaluates how a team performs at full strength -- if that team is entering the NCAA Tournament at full strength.
If that's true, then Michigan State should be a No. 1 seed if it wins the Big Ten Tournament.
Michigan State is 13-3 with all of its key players (defined as top five players in minutes per game among players who have played at least half of their team's games): Keith Appling, Gary Harris, Denzel Valentine, Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne.
Michigan State has the fifth-best BPI of any team with all of its key players.
The Spartans are 20-3 with Branden Dawson in the lineup (5-5 without him). Their only three losses with Dawson in the lineup are North Carolina, Illinois and Ohio State.
With all of their key players, the Spartans are 6-2 against the BPI top 50 and 8-3 against the BPI top 100.
Kansas, Arizona, Florida and Wichita State are the only teams that rank in the top five in RPI, BPI and KenPom.
Kansas has the No. 1 overall strength of schedule, the No. 1 non-conference strength of schedule, the most RPI top-50 wins of any team (12) and the most RPI top-100 wins (18).
The Jayhawks have no losses outside the RPI top 100.
Michigan has 10 wins against the RPI top 50. Only Kansas (12) and Arizona (11) have more.
If Virginia and Florida don't win their conference tournaments, Michigan could be the only "major conference" team to win its regular-season conference title outright and its conference tournament.
Duke has five wins against the RPI top 25, the most of any team. The Blue Devils have a head-to-head win against Michigan, another team competing for a No. 1 seed. They also have wins against Virginia and Syracuse.
Villanova has 16 wins against the RPI top 100. Only Kansas (18), Arizona (17) and Wisconsin (17) have more. The Wildcats have a head-to-head win against Kansas, another team that could potentially receive a No. 1 seed.
BPI No. 1 Arizona fell 64-57 at Oregon on Saturday and lost 0.7 in its BPI rating. But the Wildcats had enough of a cushion over No. 2 Florida that they maintained the hold on the top spot. Similarly, No. 9 Wisconsin, which lost at Nebraska on Sunday, maintained its ranking despite a 1.0 drop in BPI.
Kansas falls after Shockers’ victory
A 92-86 loss at West Virginia brought Kansas’ BPI rating down 0.7, and the Jayhawks kept their No. 3 BPI ranking after Saturday’s games.
After Wichita State won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship game Sunday, the Shockers got a bump of 0.2 in their BPI – a small bump, but large enough for Wichita State to move from No. 4 to No. 3 in the rankings, leapfrogging Kansas. The Jayhawks, who have the toughest schedule among BPI Top 15 teams, are No. 3 in the NCAA’s RPI rankings but fell from eighth to 10th in the weekly Associated Press poll.
Of the BPI Top 10 teams that lost, only Virginia (a 75-69 overtime loser at Maryland on Sunday) dropped in the rankings immediately after the defeat, from No. 7 to No. 8.
Pac-12 climber and faller
Oregon, in its BPI rating, gained less than Arizona lost after their game Saturday but climbed four spots in the rankings Sunday to No. 16. The Ducks have won seven games in a row (earning a BPI Game Score of at least 90 in five of them) and exceeded a 90 Game Score in its loss at Arizona on Feb. 6. The NCAA’s RPI has Oregon at No. 25, and the Ducks have the third-most votes among teams finishing out of the top 25 in the AP poll.
The biggest faller in BPI rankings among the Top 50 was UCLA. The Bruins lost 73-55 at No. 175 Washington State on Saturday and fell from 11th to 21st. UCLA earned a Game Score of 10.6 against Washington State, 10 points lower than any other game score for a team currently ranked in the BPI Top 25.
In the eye of the beholder
BPI and other team ranking systems weigh different factors, which explains why teams such as Michigan and Louisville can be regarded so differently.
Michigan is eighth in the AP poll, ninth in RPI and a No. 2 seed in Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology. In BPI, however, Michigan is 22nd. Of the Wolverines’ seven losses, four have been by at least 10 points; of their wins, seven have been by five points or fewer. Also, Michigan is 8-1 with an 88.7 BPI against opponents missing at least one of their top five players (in terms of minutes per game), and BPI de-weights those games.
Louisville rose from 11th to fifth in the AP poll, but the Cardinals are a projected No. 4 seed in Bracketology and are 22nd in RPI. BPI ranks the Cardinals fifth. All five of Louisville’s losses have been to BPI Top 50 teams and have been by an average of six points, whereas its five wins against Top-50 opponents have come by an average of 13.4 points.
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Do Michigan State’s injuries matter? In the words of Orlando Jones’ magazine salesman in “Office Space”: that all depends.
On Saturday, when the Spartans fell at home to hated rival Michigan -- a hard-fought and thrilling game that included a “Just-in Bei-ber” chant, Mitch McGary’s brilliant coaching advice (“win the game”) and a loving Nik Stauskas farewell -- they did so without forwards Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne. Payne, foot be-booted, missed his fifth straight game. Dawson, who broke his hand in a self-inflicted outburst during an apparently intense Thursday film session, missed his first, with many more to come. Tom Izzo found himself plunging deep into his frontcourt reserves: Alex Gauna and Gavin Schilling made appearances. Matt Costello’s 28 minutes were a season high. Russell Byrd, who hadn’t played more than five minutes in any non-guaranteed blowout all season, ran for 13.
It was tempting, then, to attach an asterisk to the entire affair, a temptation ESPN’s Chantel Jennings discussed -- and convincingly dismissed -- Saturday night. The Wolverines were missing McGary, after all, and the adjustments they’ve made since December have been stunning. Besides, Izzo wouldn’t hear of it.
The real question is how these injuries will affect Michigan State in the long run. For starters, there is the Big Ten race, where the Spartans are now staring down a one-game deficit and a much more difficult remaining schedule than John Beilein’s team. But the most interesting fallout could be in the NCAA tournament seeding.
The selection committee weighs a team’s performance during and after injury, and does its best to take the “true” measure of a team based on the gulf between the two. If Michigan State doesn’t slide too far in Dawson’s (and Payne’s) absences, and then looks brilliant upon their various returns, they’ll be seeded accordingly. But if the Spartans nosedive for the next two weeks? Or the next month? The committee can apply only so many asterisks. It’s unlikely, but what happens then?
On Tuesday, Michigan State faces Iowa’s offensive onslaught in Iowa City. On Saturday, they play an even-more-hobbled Georgetown. How the Spartans look next time this week should tell us a lot about just how important their injuries will look in March.
ICYMI: TOP STORIES
Arizona shrugs off Utah, moves to 20-0. Just after the Wildcats finished their 65-56 brush-off of Utah Sunday night, the Fox Sports 1 crew placed the rosters of the greatest Arizona teams of all time next to Sean Miller’s team -- Steve Kerr, Kenny Lofton, Miles Simon, Richard Jefferson and all the rest. It was a sobering comparison: On paper, this Arizona team now ranks above the greatest Wildcats teams of all time. On the floor, it’s hard to argue otherwise, something the dominant final few minutes of an otherwise so-so performance showed. (It was also, for what it’s worth, a pretty impressive performance from Utah, which continues to look miles removed from the six-win disaster of 2011-12.)
Cincinnati keeps winning. Sshh. You can look at Cincinnati’s 80-76 win at Temple Sunday night one of two ways. You could note that the Bearcats were outscored 29-15 in the final 10 minutes against a bad team. Or, you could note that Cincinnati was outscored 29-15 in the final 10 minutes and went ahead and won anyway. You should also note that the Bearcats have ever so quietly jumped out to an 8-0 AAC record, are 19-2 overall, suffered their last loss Dec. 14 against Xavier, beat Pitt three days later, rebound 40 percent of their own misses and have one of the stingiest per-trip defenses in the country.
North Carolina avoided ignominy. Given North Carolina’s horrendous January -- which included a road loss to Wake Forest, a home loss to Miami, a 45-point effort at Syracuse and a throttling at Virginia -- and Clemson’s surprisingly capable defense, you could practically hear people getting ready to laugh at UNC when it inevitably lost its first-ever game to the Tigers at home. Giant clouds of schadenfreude were gathered on the horizon. It was going to be a thing! And then Roy Williams had to go and reminded his team it beat Louisville and Michigan State. North Carolina scored 80 points in 61 possessions Sunday, and the storm broke apart in the atmosphere.
THE GAMES YOU NEED TO SEE
(For two more in-depth previews of big games week to come, check back for Monday morning’s “Planning for Success” series.)
Michigan State at Iowa, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: How’s this for a quick Saturday-Tuesday turnaround? As we discussed above, Michigan State’s road trip week starts in Iowa City and ends vs. Georgetown in Madison Square Garden, and the first fixture is the more challenging by a factor of 10. The Hawkeyes, who rank with the nation’s best by every meaningful statistical measure, drilled Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., after Wednesday’s loss in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Iowa State at Kansas, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: For most of the season, Iowa State’s offense ranked among the nation’s best; it was certainly, in all its shape-shifting uptempo glory, one of the most entertaining. Since the start of Big 12 play -- and roughly coinciding with DeAndre Kane’s sprained ankle at Oklahoma -- the Cyclones’ offense is scoring just 1.06 points per trip, ninth best in the Big 12. What better time for a trip to Lawrence?!
Cincinnati at Louisville, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: For all its travails this season -- the bad nonconference slate, the loss at rival Kentucky, the departure of Chane Behanan -- the Louisville Cardinals have, for the most part, played pretty excellent basketball. (The latest? A 41-point win at South Florida Saturday.) Cincinnati can identify with the whole “good basketball going largely unnoticed” thing. Thursday’s winner should get everyone’s attention.
Arizona at Cal, 10:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network: Before we get all crazy: Arizona still has to play at Stanford on Wednesday. It still has a back-to-back road trip to Arizona State and Utah in mid-February. It still has two dates against Oregon. And now, with those important caveats out of the way, if the Wildcats win at Cal on Saturday, it is conceivable -- not likely, not probably, barely possible, but conceivable -- they could run the regular-season table. Gird loins accordingly.
Duke at Syracuse, 6 :30 p.m. ET, ESPN: Two weeks ago, this game would have been a harder sell, because two weeks ago the Blue Devils were coming off back-to-back losses against Notre Dame and Clemson, and freshman star Jabari Parker looked like his face had become intimately acquainted with the notorious freshman “wall.” No more: Duke has won four straight, the latest, a 78-56 rout of Florida State (in 63 possessions) its most complete performance of the season. OK, so it’s Duke-Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. It was never actually a hard sell. But now the Orange don’t look quite so likely to dominate.
PHOTO OF THE WEEK
Each of KU's three losses are against teams ranked in the BPI top 20 – Villanova, Florida and Colorado. Each of those losses were by six points or fewer away from home. Kansas is 1-3 against top-20 teams (defeated Duke) and 8-0 against teams outside the top 20.
The Jayhawks have faced eight top-100 teams, including five teams in the top 50. Each of their 12 opponents are ranked in the BPI top 160.
Kansas has taken care of business against teams ranked outside the BPI top 25. The Jayhawks have the best BPI against teams outside the top 25.
Syracuse gets crucial win vs Villanova
Syracuse is coming off an impressive win against Villanova on Saturday in which the Orange trailed by 18 points in the first half but outscored the Wildcats by 34 over the final 31 minutes of the game. It was Syracuse's best performance of the season. In fact, it was the second-best performance by any team this season according to BPI game score.
The win against Villanova improved Syracuse's BPI rank from No. 12 to No. 10 (now No. 11), but it still differs greatly with its No. 2 ranking in RPI and No. 2 ranking in the AP Poll.
But the Orange also have three wins that hurt their BPI. They have three BPI game scores less than 75 -- against No. 349 Cornell (the only remaining winless D-I team), No. 340 Binghamton, and a six-point win against No. 194 Saint Francis (NY).
The Orange had five solid wins against top-100 teams entering Saturday, but the win against Villanova was their first win against a top-35 team. The Orange now have the best BPI against top-100 teams.
Louisville lacks signature win
The Louisville Cardinals missed their opportunity for a signature non-conference win against Kentucky on Saturday.
The Cardinals lost to both of their BPI top-50 opponents this season -- Kentucky and North Carolina -- and have just one top-100 win (Southern Miss). The Cardinals have the 12th-best BPI against teams ranked outside the top 50.
Louisville has faced seven teams ranked outside the BPI top 200, which doesn't fare well for its non-conference résumé. To Louisville's credit, it has defeated those seven teams by an average margin of 29.3 points per game. Despite the weak schedule, defeating those lackluster opponents by such a large margin doesn't hurt the Cardinals' BPI as much as it could.
Louisville's schedule strength is ranked No. 156 according to BPI. That's the lowest-ranked schedule of any team ranked in the BPI top 50.
Playing a weak schedule and not defeating any highly-ranked opponents is certainly a large factor -- just like it is with RPI. But unlike RPI, BPI takes into account that Louisville has pummeled all 11 of its opponents ranked outside the BPI top 50 by an average margin of 29.2 points per game.
That's the primary reason why Louisville is ranked No. 17 in BPI despite being No. 45 in RPI.
Iowa State is consistent
Iowa State, ranked No. 5 in BPI, is the most consistent team in the country in terms of variation in BPI game score from game to game.
The Cyclones are 4-0 against top-60 teams with wins against Iowa, Michigan, Boise State and BYU. All four of those wins are by seven points or fewer.
Iowa State's seven wins against teams outside the top 100 are by an average of 27.9 points per game.
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- As Julius Randle made his way to the locker room -- leg cramps, not Louisville, the only thing that could stop him in Rupp Arena -- it was hard not think back to a Kentucky moment from a year ago.
That situation was far more dire -- his team already trailed by a dozen when Nerlens Noel crashed into a stanchion at Florida.
But there was still a fighting chance left for the season, depending on whom the Cats decided to be. Turns out, those Cats decided to be a shell of their former selves, waving the white flag of surrender and losing five of their final nine, including a dismal NIT loss at Robert Morris.
There seemed so much wrong with Kentucky that even the usual fervor and blustering surrounding the commonwealth rivalry was quieted.
And then Randle left for the locker room for the final time with 11:01 left in a one-point game against nemesis Louisville.
So just who did Kentucky want to be?
“We wanted to prove to people that we could play together and be a team,’’ James Young said.
In impressive fashion, Kentucky did.
The game tied at 53, Young scored after scooping up a missed shot and the Cats would never trail again, going on to win 73-66.
It helped that Louisville looked thoroughly dysfunctional. Montrezl Harrell and Chane Behanan are on a milk carton somewhere in Kentucky, missing in action with a woeful 2-of-5 combined shooting effort. Luke Hancock didn’t actually fare much better, going 2-of-8 from the arc and 3-of-11 from the floor.
But this game was as much about what Kentucky did as what Louisville didn’t.
Statistically the Cats played to their strengths, pulling down 17 offensive rebounds for 17 second-chance points, but it’s more how they played and how they looked than what the stat sheet said.
“Did we look more like a basketball team today?’’ John Calipari said. “We looked like a basketball team. Here is what was on the board today -- look like a team; play like a team; fight like a team. That was the key to the game. There was no, ‘let’s guard the pick and roll.’ We have to be more like a team and that’s what they were today.’’
Now anyone who would call the Cats cured of what ails them after one game clearly has never met a teenager. They are as predictable as the shape of paint splatter shot out of a cannon.
It is nothing less than fool’s gold to take a courageous performance in a heated rivalry game in front of a fevered crowd and say the magic wand has been waved for the season.
Calipari admitted as much, happy to point out Kentucky’s lousy free-throw shooting (53 percent) and 3-point shooting (3-of-14). He was so jazzed by the win that he said he’d give his team all of 12 hours to enjoy it.
He plans to practice at 6 p.m. on Sunday.
But there is almost always a turning point in a season, a moment a team can pinpoint and say, "this is where we got our act together." Louisville’s, for example, came in five overtimes last season, in what would be its last loss of the season.
This could very well be Kentucky’s.
“From here on out, we’re just going to be a real good team,’’ Young vowed. “Just going to fight the whole game and not just take quarters off and plays off; just keep fighting.’’
The dirty little secret with the "best college basketball recruiting class ever assembled" is that with the exception of Randle, it has been pretty mediocre. Andrew and Aaron Harrison have been inconsistent and Young has been streaky with his shooting. Only Randle has been steady.
Even playing essentially just one half against Louisville, Randle managed to keep his double-digit scoring streak alive. He had 17 by the break.
Yet without him, Kentucky actually played well, if not better (and let’s pause here for foolishness identification. Anyone who thinks the Cats are "too reliant" on Randle has clearly lost his mind. It’s OK to be reliant on a guy who will be a top-five draft pick).
In place of eye rolling or shoulder sagging from the much-maligned Harrison twins, there was a combined 28 points and (mostly) smart decisions with the ball. From Young, there were three made treys, but also 10 key rebounds.
And from the Cats in general there was a sense of urgency and purpose.
"I know we get criticized a lot for being young and body language and stuff like that, but we knew we could win this game," Andrew Harrison said. “Going against a team like Louisville, we knew we had to bring it."
There always has been ample talent to win an NCAA title here -- probably enough talent to challenge for a D-League title, for that matter.
But all that talent, strangely enough, has been the Cats’ Achilles heel. In high school, in summer league games talent almost always wins. Teams can afford to take a play off here or turn on the jets at the last minute and waltz into the showers with a victory.
With the better part of this roster only a few months removed from the ease of winning, it was hard to convince them things had to be done differently in college.
Now there is evidence -- not just how a team can lose when it doesn’t work together, but how a team can win when it does.
The third week of Wooden Watch (or as I like to call it, "Wooden Watch 3: The Watchening") brings with it more tumult than its preceding editions.
From sheer math alone, this makes sense. The Thanksgiving schedule pushed last week's Watch up to Tuesday, which has given us a nine-day stretch of uninterrupted basketball on which to base our way-too-early national player of the year prospectus. But pound-for-pound, those nine days were, I'd argue, every bit as good and every bit as tumultuous as any stretch that came before. Word to North Carolina.
The losses suffered by top teams -- and players on the POY contention short list -- do shake things up a bit, but it's important not to go too far. One loss does not a Wooden campaign ruin. (You're thinking of the Heisman.) We've been couching these early rankings with all sorts of disclaimers about just how early in the season it is, and that remains true -- even as we barrel headfirst into December. Let's see where we are, shall we?
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: After a brilliant start, Smart's first regression of the season came in Kissimmee, Fla., at the Old Spice Classic last weekend. Smart had 17 points and eight rebounds in a shaky 69-67 semifinal win over Butler, but the five turnovers he committed on Friday foreshadowed the five he would commit Sunday. That game, against Memphis, saw Smart stifled by a suddenly coherent Tigers perimeter scheme, and while Smart finished with 12 points and eight rebounds, he missed all five of his 3-point attempts. And yet, he retains his spot atop this list. Why? For one, Smart was clearly sick. I'm not offering excuses (nor taking credit away from Memphis, because the Tigers were great), but I am acknowledging realities. Second, well, it's one game. It's fine. Dude's really good. Moving on.
Russ Smith, Louisville: The North Carolina loss might have thrown people off Louisville's scent, but now that Michigan State is the latest to get a front-row seat to the Tar Heels' ongoing Jekyll and Hyde performance piece, let's go ahead and remind everyone that Louisville is playing top-10 offense and top-three defense, and that Smith, while maintaining his high usage and shot rates, has thus far pumped his assist rate to 37.5 percent (from 21.1 a year ago), shot 58.2 percent from 2-point range and kept his steals rate (4.1 percent) totally steady.
Doug McDermott, Creighton: I'm not willing to get too worked up about McDermott's one loss, either. Yes, I know Creighton fell to San Diego State and George Washington this week, but only one of those losses should be an indictment. Against San Diego State, Creighton was, well, Creighton: McDermott scored 30 points and shot 6-of-10 from 2 and 5-of-8 from 3, and the Bluejays' porous defense cost them the game anyway. Three years on, that's what you sign up for with the Bluejays -- same as it ever was. George Washington was a different story: McDermott was stifled by the Colonials in wholly unexpected fashion (seven points, 2-of-12 from the field, a tidy 54.0 offensive rating -- yikes). But, well, it's one game. It's fine. Dude's really good. Moving on.
Jabari Parker, Duke: I downgraded Parker's status last week because of Duke's putrid defense, but now that the Blue Devils have submitted two slightly better defensive performances -- one in a 72-66 loss to Arizona on Friday, the other in a 79-69 win (in 67 possessions) against Michigan on Tuesday -- it's time to elevate Parker once more. The ironic part? These last two games have been his worst offensively, the first two in which he failed to score at least 20 points (and less efficiently, too). But Parker is gobbling up defensive rebounds for a team that desperately needs him to be a stud on both ends of the floor, and he'll get his points, rest assured.
Julius Randle, Kentucky: Randle hasn't been quite as efficient as he was at the start of the season, but he is still plugging along, dominating
Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: The nice thing about Napier's player of the year candidacy is that it need not rest on a fuzzy term like "clutch" alone. Napier has been ruthless late in games, to be sure: His late winner against Florida on Monday required plenty of luck, but you knew he was going to ice that second chance as soon as the ball bounced to him. But you can also build Napier's case on the breadth of his point guard play, which has been as comprehensive as any guard's to date.
Casey Prather, Florida: In March, Billy Donovan may look back at the Gators' injury-riddled November and thank his lucky stars, for that was the month that Prather turned into a star. Prather makes his first appearance here this week, but it probably should have come sooner. In eight games to date, he's registered a 121.5 offensive rating while using 30.1 percent of his team's possessions; he's shot nearly 64 percent from the field; and he's rebounded 10.6 percent of Florida's available misses. Watching Prather, a three-year glue guy, slice defenses with Euro-steps and quick-twitch offensive rebounds has been an alternately confusing and thrilling process. Either way, he doesn't look like he's slowing down.
Nick Johnson, Arizona: Aaron Gordon gets all the attention, and he'll surely be on this list more than any Wildcat this season. But Arizona feels as much like an ensemble cast as any elite team in the country, and Nick Johnson is perhaps their most indispensable player -- the lone true shoot, drive or pull-up, all-court-style threat who makes Arizona more than a collection of impressive bigs.
Keith Appling, Michigan State: Appling can stay, despite Wednesday night's home loss to UNC, because, well, again: It's one game. Before Wednesday, Appling had been peerless, and he wasn't that bad Wednesday night, either. The current line is 57.1 percent from 2, 48.3 percent from 3, a 28.4 assist rate to just 13.0 turnover percentage, and more generally, an engaged, comfortable and balanced player on both ends of the floor.
Jahii Carson, Arizona State: Carson had his first comedown of the season at Miami on Sunday, when he somehow went 0-for-10 from inside the arc. That, plus Arizona State's sub-Duke defense, is reason for slight downgrade this week. (If this were a list of the most entertaining players, Carson would probably be No. 1 every week. He's fun to watch miss.)
Honorable mentions: Marcus Paige (UNC), Tyler Ennis (Syracuse), C.J. Fair (Syracuse), Gary Harris (Michigan State), Joseph Young (Oregon), Anthony Drmic (Boise State), Chaz Williams (UMass), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Tim Frazier (Penn State), Jordan Adams (UCLA), Roberto Nelson (Oregon State), Kendall Williams (New Mexico), Caris LeVert (Michigan), Cleanthony Early (Wichita State), LaQuinton Ross (Ohio State), T.J. Warren (NC State)
Happy holidays, and happy early Wooden Watch. This Tuesday edition of what will for the rest of the season be a Thursday update is brought to you by pumpkin pie, stuffing and the rest of our quirky turkey traditions. You'll be eating and watching football Thursday. So will I, if the weather cooperates. So let's check in on the running Wooden list a couple of days early.
What's changed in five days? Honestly ... not a whole lot. That goes for last week's disclaimer, too: Since we're just now rounding the corner into December, the order of the list below is not really of primary concern. This is a window to the landscape, not a definitive hierarchy, for at least the next few weeks. And with that said:
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: If the season ended today, Marcus Smart would be my 2013-14 national player of the year. You likely saw what he did to Memphis last week; you've no doubt heard the ever-more-impressive stories about his leadership and work ethic. But my favorite Smart moment may have come Monday night at South Florida, when he and the Cowboys utterly eviscerated the Bulls with a gusto typically reserved for games against Kansas. Smart scored 25 points with four assists and four steals. He finished inverse post alley-oops, set up Cowboys wings for thundering finishes and even splashed down a 65-foot-or-so buzzer-beater at halftime. It looked like someone in the South Florida crowd had said something to Smart along the way: He was unusually talkative, and even threw up a "shush" sign. And, well, a word to wise fans on the Cowboys' road schedule: Don't do that.
Doug McDermott, Creighton: Another week, another chapter in my book, "Doug McDermott is hilariously efficient," available at all reputable bookstores (note: not really). McDermott has posted a 124.1 offensive rating on 31.9 percent usage and a 37.9 shot rate, the second highest in the country. He's hitting 50 percent from 3, drawing fouls at the usual rate and rebounding the defensive glass as steadily as ever. (Oh, and last week's catch-shoot winner at St. Joe's, which I criminally failed to mention Thursday, is worth watching over and over and over.)
Julius Randle, Kentucky: Randle had his first "off" night against Cleveland State on Monday night, but he still finished with 15 points and 15 rebounds, and his passing out of the block was key to the last-ditch 3-point flurry that helped the Wildcats escape with a win. Good teams will double and triple Randle until UK proves it can knock down 3s consistently, but even if that never happens, he is as dominant a force as any in the game.
Jahii Carson, Arizona State: Save Marcus Smart, no guard has had a better start to the season than Carson, who followed up last week's 40-point effort in a win at UNLV with Monday's 23-point, five-assist performance in ASU's thrilling win against Marquette. There might be two or three defenders in the country capable of keeping Carson out of the lane. If that.
Jabari Parker, Duke: The order of this list isn't a big deal right now, remember, but I went ahead and downgraded Parker a bit this week anyway. But why? Isn't he still pouring in points? Yes. And thrillingly so. But Parker and Rodney Hood's issues on the defensive end for Duke have contributed to the Blue Devils' No. 176-ranked efficiency defense, and Duke gave up 90 points in 65 possessions to Vermont at home Sunday. Russ Smith, Louisville: Louisville took a tough and totally surprising loss to North Carolina on Sunday afternoon; the Tar Heels, especially guard Marcus Paige, looked better than anyone could have expected. But it's hardly time to panic on Smith. He was great individually Sunday, and he'll be great in the weeks to come, too.
Keith Appling, Michigan State: Gary Harris' spot last week is now occupied by Appling, and that says far more about Appling's performance than it does Harris'. The Michigan State point guard has done everything right as a senior thus far: He's shooting far less, and more accurately (57.1 percent from 3, 55.3 percent from 2); he's assisting teammates on nearly 30 percent of his possessions; and he isn't turning it over -- or suffering the long, disengaged stretches of a season ago. What a start.
Aaron Gordon, Arizona: Arizona's team is so balanced, and playing so much more unselfishly on the perimeter with the addition of T.J. McConnell, that it's tempting to give some love to one of the other Wildcats -- McConnell himself, perhaps, or peerless senior shooting guard Nick Johnson. But Gordon remains the focal point on offense, and his athleticism is just flabbergasting.
Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: Early in his fourth season at UConn, Napier officially has every tool in the tool box. Tom Crean talked about this at length after Indiana's close loss to UConn in New York last weekend, and it's totally true: Napier is lights-out on the perimeter whether catching and shooting or off the dribble; he puts defenders in blenders with his ball-handling and versatility; and he keeps the ball moving and his teammates involved. Oh, and he's a blast to watch. A+++ -- would DVR again.
Early honorable mentions: C.J. Fair (Syracuse), Gary Harris (Michigan State), Joseph Young (Oregon), Adreian Payne (Michigan State), Anthony Drmic (Boise State), Chaz Williams (UMass), Yogi Ferrell, (Indiana), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Tim Frazier (Penn State), Jordan Adams (UCLA), Roberto Nelson (Oregon State), Kendall Williams (New Mexico), Caris LeVert (Michigan), Cleanthony Early (Wichita State), Marcus Paige (North Carolina) and Casey Prather (Florida)
The most controversial selection, if that's even possible, will be Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins. The last time a freshman -- Harrison Barnes in 2010-11 -- was named to the first-team list, it was a nod to the way the one-and-done freshman had changed the sport. When Barnes struggled ("failed to totally dominate" is probably a better way to put it) in his first season, the whole notion of anointing freshmen came under intense fire. If Wiggins has similar issues -- doubtful, but you never know -- expect the preseason selection to be used as a rhetorical cudgel in every hot sports take on the topic for months to come.
Arguably more surprising is the inclusion of Michigan forward Mitch McGary. McGary's place makes sense: No one played better in March, when McGary finally unleashed the talent that made him a top-five player in his recruiting class for all but his senior season of high school. But the five months before McGary's explosion was mostly pedestrian; even with the tournament thrown in, McGary played just 48.8 percent of his team's available minutes. As late as Michigan's final regular-season game against Indiana, he was being used for little more than a body to absorb (and provoke) contact from Indiana center Cody Zeller. He's bound to regress from his dazzling postseason display. The real question is: How much? (Another reason the selection is surprising: McGary wasn't even the Big Ten's preseason player of the year. That honor went to Michigan State's Gary Harris.)
Louisville guard Russ Smith's inclusion might also be a tad bit startling, but it shouldn't be: Smith was arguably the best player in the country last season, certainly the best and most productive two-way guard, to say nothing of that whole "winning the national title" thing. (Oh, that.) But even then, Smith was just a third-team selection at the end of last season, and he still seemed to be shaking off his reputation as a goofy gunner. It's good to see folks taking Russdiculous seriously.
And then there are the obvious choices. Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart and Creighton forward Doug McDermott's chances of not being on the preseason list were roughly as good as my chances of earning honorable mention. No further explanation required.
Taken as a whole, the five honorees paint a revealing picture of the season to come. We expect dominance from a lauded, loaded freshman class; we know what we're going to get from established veteran stars; and, as always, we allow perceptions formed during the NCAA tournament to override the months of regular season, and dozens of games, that came before.
These are defining characteristics of any college hoops season, but they are turned up to 11 in 2013-14. If you weren't already aware, this mix of preseason All-Americans should drive the point home. This is going to be a fascinating season.
We’ve officially judged and juried every nonconference schedule.
Kudos to the teams that had the nerve to schedule bravely. Your just rewards could come in March, when the selection committee recognizes the merits of playing tough opponents, even if there’s a risk of a loss.
And shame on those who scheduled meekly. Enjoy the NIT.
Now, it’s time to play Armchair Scheduler -- or King/Queen of the Basketball Universe, whichever title floats your boat -- and offer up 15 nonconference games that won’t be played this year, but we wish would be:
Kansas vs. Missouri: Let’s just file this under an annual request. One of the greatest rivalries in college basketball ought to be played this year, next year and every year. We don’t care who left what conference. We don’t care who’s angry. This is like two divorcing parents sparring over the china with the kids stuck in the middle. Here the two schools’ fan bases and fans of the game in general are the kids. So hire a good mediator, work this out and play ball.
Georgetown vs. Syracuse: See Kansas-Missouri argument above. The two teams here at least have agreed that continuing the rivalry at some point is a good idea and it appears a multiyear contract is imminent, but there’s nothing yet on the schedule. Let’s fix that. Soon.
Kentucky vs. Indiana: Ibid. Or is it op. cit.? Whatever, reference the Kansas-Missouri, Georgetown-Syracuse arguments cited above. Two states separated by a river. Great rivalry. Lousy excuses. Figure it out.
North Carolina vs. Raleigh News & Observer: The Tar Heels’ crimes, misdeeds and lack of punishment have been well documented in the news media, but nowhere as thoroughly and as well as at the local newspaper. The staff at the N&O has been relentless and thorough in its coverage. We suggest a game of H-O-R-S-E (with the African-American studies department excused from judging) at the Newseum to settle this once and for all.
Harvard vs. Duke: Smart school versus smart school. Mentor versus mentee. Easy storylines for reporters. What’s not to like about this matchup? Not to mention it would feature two top-25 teams and give the Crimson a chance to show how good they really are.
Kansas vs. Kentucky: Yes, we will get to enjoy Kansas (Andrew Wiggins) versus Duke (Jabari Parker) in Chicago, but we’re selfish. We’d like to see Wiggins go up against Kentucky, one of the schools he spurned. Not to mention it might be fun witnessing what could essentially be a freshman All-American game, with Wiggins, the Harrison twins, James Young, Julius Randle and Joel Embiid together on one floor.
Florida Gulf Coast vs. Georgetown: Let’s see if the slipper still fits when last season’s Cinderella goes rematch against its Madness victims, the Hoyas. Georgetown doesn’t have Otto Porter anymore and Greg Whittington is hurt, but hey, Dunk City lost its drum major when Andy Enfield headed to USC. Seems about even.
Michigan vs. Notre Dame: No one would dare call Mike Brey a chicken, would they? The two schools called the football rivalry quits this year amid acrimony and an endgame Wolverine chicken dance, but maybe the basketball schools can extend the olive branch and play for the first time since 2006.
Michigan State vs. Duke: Tom Izzo may not want to see the Blue Devils very often -- he’s 1-7 against Duke in his tenure -- but this game never disappoints. The two schools have met nine times and only twice, in 2003 and in 1958, has it been a blowout. The two have gone head-to-head over top recruits, including Jabari Parker, and come into the season as top-10 locks.
Memphis vs. Arizona: Josh Pastner revisits his coaching roots in a game that will answer the biggest question facing the Wildcats -- how good is point guard T.J. McConnell? If the Duquesne transfer can handle the Tigers’ onslaught of Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson, Chris Crawford and Michael Dixon, he can handle everything.
Louisville vs. Oklahoma State: You like good guard play? Imagine this one. Russ Smith, Chris Jones, Terry Rozier (and maybe Kevin Ware) against Marcus Smart, Markel Brown and incoming freshman Stevie Clark. The coaches would be miserable -- with Rick Pitino going up against his own beloved point guard, Travis Ford -- but the rest of us would enjoy it tremendously.
Oregon vs. Creighton: This game stacks up on merit, not just on the storyline of Dana Altman facing his old squad. With Doug McDermott back in the fold, the Bluejays are legit. Their schedule is less so, a sort of meandering plunder of nonconference nothingness. Adding the Ducks, a team Altman has reconstructed, and his impressive backcourt would be helpful. And OK, old coach/old school is fun.
New Mexico vs. Florida: The Gators already have a pretty impressive nonconference slate, but hey, what’s one more? This one would be a nice tussle between pretty skilled, albeit different, big men in Alex Kirk and Patric Young. Kirk enjoyed a breakout season last year, but facing Young would be a real test of the 7-footer’s abilities.
By the time his career is over -- and in some ways this is already the case -- Rick Pitino will be mentioned among the greatest college basketball coaches of all time. What separates him is how winding his path has been. The coaches we maintain as the game's greatest almost universally built their legacies on decadeslong, storied tenures at blue-blooded schools. They become institutions synonymous with their programs.
John Wooden at UCLA, Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, Bob Knight at Indiana, Dean Smith at North Carolina, Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, Jim Calhoun at Connecticut -- these are men who, as I wrote already Wednesday morning, built their basketball Valhallas in their own image and settled in for a lifetime. Pitino left his own Valhalla -- Kentucky -- in 1997, at the height of his powers -- only the most memorable and notable fork in a career full of them.
Here is a look at some of Pitino's defining moments -- some good, some bad, all of a piece with his story.
1. "The Untouchables": For all the twists and turns that would come before, and all the strange and florid detours that would follow, Rick Pitino's defining moment as a coach will always be the 1995-96 season, when he achieved something like Pitino Basketball Nirvana. After the better part of a decade spent resurrecting Kentucky's proud but bruised program in the wake of the post-Eddie Sutton sanctions, Pitino's beautiful Wildcats machine morphed into its ideal form in 1995-96, when Pitino led a team that eventually would send 11 players to the NBA draft to a 34-2 season, a national title and a place at any "best college basketball team of all time" table.
That season wasn't special just because the Wildcats were so talented. That was part of it, sure, but only the baseline. It was the fact that Pitino managed to unleash that many future NBA players within a style -- his up-tempo, high-pressure, defensively masterful style -- he had been working toward his entire career. He realized it fully, with a team deep enough and balanced enough to utterly dominate with it, in one of those just-about-perfect seasons every coach sees when he closes his eyes at night. Imagine how it must have felt. I'll use the phrase again: In 1995-96, Pitino achieved Basketball Nirvana. It was beautiful to watch.
Also, it happened in these uniforms. Which is pretty great, as bonuses go.
2. The Redeem Team: The decades since Pitino descended from Valhalla were less kind. By the late 2000s, Pitino's personal and professional reputation had been thoroughly bruised, while his old personal rival, Kentucky coach John Calipari, was rapidly turning Pitino's former program into a constant national title contender perennially stocked with the type of pro talent few programs in history have been able to boast. But in 2011-12, Pitino's Louisville group made a surprise run to the Final Four, and all of a sudden a seemingly mediocre team had the look of a national title contender. In 2012-13, that batch of seemingly ragtag guys -- a barely recruited guard best known for biting his nails and no-no-YES shot-selection, a Senegalese center who didn't understand why everyone took basketball so seriously, a point guard who couldn't shoot, an undersized sophomore power forward, and a slow, tweener George Mason transfer -- morphed into a dominant two-way force, a modern update of Pitino's old pressing style capable of seamlessly shifting into any tune their emphatic sideline conductor demanded.
After Luke Hancock, Peyton Siva, & Co. outlasted Michigan in a classic finale, Pitino became the first man in college basketball history to win national titles at two different programs. In April, the lasting shot -- of Pitino and his family drenched in confetti on the Georgia Dome floor, of Louisville's players staring in awe at a cheesy old tradition -- marked Pitino's redemption after years of personal and professional struggle.
3. And everything that went with it: How far had the karmic balance swung back in Pitino's favor this spring? Not only did he win a national title -- which surely would have been more than enough -- within a handful of days at the Final Four, he also 1) congratulated his 30-year-old son on being hired as the head coach at Minnesota, 2) was informed that his horse had won the Santa Anita Derby and qualified to run in the Kentucky Derby, and 3) learned he was going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. A few weeks later, he reveled in simultaneous horse and hoops heaven at the Kentucky Derby -- unofficial king of all he surveyed. Forget coaches; from March to September, few people anywhere had quite as much fun as Pitino. Even fewer changed the tone of their public-facing lives quite so jubilantly.
4. The Shot: Before Pitino really got his Kentucky machine humming, he had to reform UK out of the rubble of the late-'80s sanctions. That process appeared to come to a symbolic head in 1992 when Sean Woods led the Wildcats to what appeared to be a win over a star-studded Duke team -- just 2.1 seconds before Christian Laettner made the most famous shot in college basketball history. This past March, in advance of Pitino's Elite Eight rematch with Duke, both Pitino and Krzyzewski explained their shared membership in the rarest, most unlikely club. "I think when the basketball gods deem you worthy enough to put you in a great moment, sometimes you're placed in that moment as a winner, and sometimes you lose," Coach K said. "But sometimes the loser shines more than the winner. I thought how [Pitino] reacted and has reacted since made him shine."
"Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans. Kevin McHale is not walking through that door, and Robert Parish is not walking through that door. And if you expect them to walk through that door, they're going to be gray and old. What we are is young, exciting, hardworking, and we're going to improve. People don't realize that, and as soon as they realize those three guys are not coming through that door, the better this town will be for all of us because there are young guys in that (locker) room playing their asses off. I wish we had $90 million under the salary cap. I wish we could buy the world. We can't; the only thing we can do is work hard, and all the negativity that's in this town sucks. I've been around when Jim Rice was booed. I've been around when Yastrzemski was booed. And it stinks. It makes the greatest town, greatest city in the world, lousy. The only thing that will turn this around is being upbeat and positive like we are in that locker room ... and if you think I'm going to succumb to negativity, you're wrong. You've got the wrong guy leading this team."
Had Pitino turned his struggling Celtics teams around, that March 1, 2000, speech might have gone down as a turning point. At worst, it would have been forgotten. (Landing Tim Duncan in the 1997 draft after a league-worst 15-67 season would have helped, too.) Instead, as Celtics head coach, GM, CEO and president of basketball operations, Pitino's failure in Boston was total, and the "Fellowship of the Miserable," Pitino's name for the Celtics' infamously intense fans, quickly turned.
If there was one bright spot (besides "Fellowship of the Miserable," which is amazing), it was when Pitino gave Sports Illustrated the definitive Kenny Anderson quote: "Celtics coach, after hearing that point guard Kenny Anderson has hired a track coach to improve his speed and conditioning: 'Who's he going to hire to run for him?'"
6. Say hello to Billy the Kid: Before the New York Knicks, Kentucky, Boston and Louisville, Rick Pitino earned his national reputation as an upstart coach who turned Providence around from an 11-20 outfit the year before his arrival to a Final Four team in a matter of two seasons. He did so in large part thanks to the arrival of Billy Donovan. Then better known as "Billy the Kid," thanks to Pitino's shameless marketing savvy (Pitino made Donovan dress up like a cowboy on the cover of the Providence season program), he transformed from an overweight, unused sophomore reserve to a star. In 1986-87, Donovan's senior year and the first with a collegiate 3-point line, the Kid posted arguably the most statistically impressive individual season (20.6 points, 7.1 assists, 3.0 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game, and 41 percent from 3) of any Pitino player while leading the Friars to the program's second Final Four. It would be the first of Pitino's seven trips -- and counting.
7. Sept. 11, 2001: One of the most profound tragedies in American history was a personal nightmare for Pitino and his family. Pitino's brother-in-law and best friend, Billy Minardi, was working as a bond trader for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 105th floor of the north World Trade Center tower when the planes hit. Processing that senseless loss has taken Pitino and his family years, and the coach has talked (and written) openly about that struggle -- and the familial bonds it forged.
8. Karen Cunagin Sypher: A decade later, those bonds were tested in the most public way possible. In early 2009, Pitino announced that he was the victim of an extortion attempt, and a week later Karen Cunagin Sypher, the wife of Louisville equipment manager Tim Sypher, was arraigned in federal court on charges of extortion and lying to federal agents. The details of the case -- in which Pitino admitted he had sexual relations with Sypher in a Louisville restaurant, and that he paid Sypher $3,000 when she said she did not have health insurance for an abortion -- were not only embarrassing, they drew Pitino, an avowed family man and devoted Catholic, in a dismal light.
9. The tattoo: Save the family portrait moment at the Final Four in April, perhaps the sharpest contrast to that ugly period in Pitino's life came a few weeks later, in a downtown Louisville tattoo parlor. After his team won the national title, Pitino revealed that, after Feb. 9's five-OT loss at Notre Dame, he had promised his players that if they won the national title, he would get a tattoo. His players proved giddy about the idea (no surprise there) and held up their end of the bargain. Which is essentially how a 60-year-old multimillionaire with a horse-racing hobby and suits that make Sinatra look like a hobo came to stroll into a place called Tattoo Salvation in downtown Louisville, where he obtained his first-ever tattoo.
10. And now, the Hall of Fame: It takes a special career to earn Hall of Fame induction by the age of 60, and Pitino's, for better or worse, has most certainly been that. Now that he seems to be having more fun than ever, how much longer will Pitino coach? How many more games -- how many more titles -- can he win? Whatever the final number, the journey will be just as interesting as the destination. That much is a guarantee.
There are coaching trees and then there is the forest birthed by Rick Pitino. Imagine crossing a redwood with a sequoia. And then adding the Rockefeller Christmas tree on top for good measure.
That gets you maybe a quarter of the way up the branches of Pitino’s tree. No fewer than 13 of his ex-assistants and/or players currently serve as college head coaches (Mick Cronin, Scott Davenport, Billy Donovan, Travis Ford, Marvin Menzies, Richard Pitino, Kareem Richardson, Steve Masiello, Herb Sendek, Tubby Smith, Reggie Theus, Kevin Willard, Sean Woods). And if you stretch the list to include former head coaches or current assistants, it goes on for miles.
Between them, Pitino’s disciples have four national championships of their own (two for Donovan, one each for Smith and Davenport). So trying to pick the best of this family tree is like trying to pick your favorite uncle. Highly subjective.
Consider this attempt just that, then -- an attempt to amass a list of the most successful ... with an out clause list of others who were left off.
1. Billy Donovan: Before he won two national titles at the University of Florida, Donovan was Billy the Kid, the feisty point guard who led Providence and Pitino to the Final Four in 1987. Two years later, Donovan and his mentor reconnected at the University of Kentucky, where Donovan cut his coaching teeth as an assistant until 1994. Embarking on his own as a head coach, first at Marshall and now at Florida, Donovan has rolled up 13 NCAA tournament bids and has been to at least the Elite Eight in five of the past six appearances.
2. Tubby Smith: Smith had the unenviable job of following in Pitino’s well-heeled footsteps at Kentucky, when Pitino’s one-time assistant returned to Lexington as head coach in 1997. Smith picked up right where his old boss left off, leading the Wildcats to their seventh national championship in his first season. Smith would go on to reach the 100-win mark faster than any other UK coach not named Adolph Rupp and collect five SEC titles. The former head coach at Tulsa and Georgia went on to Minnesota and is now at Texas Tech.
4. Jim O’Brien: The son-in-law of one Hall of Famer (Jack Ramsay), O’Brien would begin working alongside a future Hall of Famer in 1994, when he joined Pitino at Kentucky. Long a college coach in his own right, O’Brien helped Pitino usher the glory years back to Lexington and when Pitino jumped to the Boston Celtics, O’Brien went with him. Little did he know it was the beginning of his own career. It was O’Brien who would take over in Boston after Pitino epically flamed out, twice leading the Celtics to the playoffs. He’d then go on to two more NBA head-coaching jobs, with Philadelphia and Indiana, before retiring at the end of last season.
5. Herb Sendek: The master of his own pretty heavily limbed coaching tree, Sendek got his start under Pitino. The western Pennsylvania native joined the Providence staff as a graduate assistant before moving up to assistant coach. When Pitino left PC for Kentucky, Sendek went with him, spending four seasons with the Wildcats before launching his own head-coaching career. Sendek has gone from Miami (Ohio) to NC State to Arizona State and now has 20 years of head-coaching experience. He has made seven NCAA tournaments and has three conference coach of the year awards.
6. Frank Vogel: No one can trace their roots directly to Pitino quite as thoroughly as the Indiana Pacers head coach. After meeting Pitino at Five-Star camp in Pittsburgh, Vogel, then a student at Juniata College, decided he was transferring on the spot to Kentucky. He had no promise of anything from Pitino but after loitering around the gym for weeks, he got a two-week trial period helping out assistant Jim O’Brien. A year later he was a student manager, and after graduation served as a video coordinator. The coach was so impressed with Vogel’s abilities that when Pitino went on to the Boston Celtics, he brought Vogel with him, hiring him as the team’s video coordinator. Vogel would outlast Pitino in Boston, staying on as an assistant coach under O’Brien. Six years later, when O’Brien was fired at Indiana, Vogel was named the Pacers’ interim coach. This past season under Vogel, the Pacers made their first Eastern Conference finals appearance since 2004.
7. Mick Cronin: The son of a head coach counts his father and Pitino as his two biggest mentors. He joined Pitino at Louisville in 2001 after five seasons at the University of Cincinnati under Bob Huggins. Eventually becoming Pitino’s right-hand man and associate coach, Cronin was lauded for his recruiting savvy and eventually parlayed that into a head-coaching job at Murray State. He led the Racers to two Ohio Valley titles and NCAA tourney appearances before leaving to lead his alma mater, Cincinnati. Cronin has been credited with reviving the Bearcats, who had just one returning player when he arrived on campus.
8. Ralph Willard: One of Pitino’s closest friends and confidants, Willard worked alongside the Hall of Famer in three different stretches -- first as an assistant with the Knicks (1987-1989), then later at Kentucky (1989-90) and finally, at Louisville (2009-2012). In between, Willard forged his own impressive career, serving as head coach at Holy Cross, Pittsburgh and Western Kentucky. He had his best success at his alma mater, Holy Cross, leading the program to four NCAA tournament berths and amassing a 192-117 record at the Patriot League school.
9. Travis Ford: The beloved Kentucky point guard started his career at Missouri but transferred to his home state school because he liked the style of its head coach. That would be Rick Pitino. Ford, fashioned in the same spitfire image of Billy Donovan, would take the Wildcats to three NCAA tournaments. With all that UK love and his coach’s endorsement, Ford landed his first head-coaching gig at the tender age of 26, taking over at NAIA Campbellsville. That led to a job at Eastern Kentucky -- and EKU’s first NCAA berth in 25 years -- which led to a job at Pitino’s alma mater, UMass (and an Atlantic 10 title) and now to Oklahoma State.
10. Scott Davenport: Maybe not as well known as others on this list, Davenport is every bit as successful. In his eighth season at Division II Bellarmine, Davenport has taken a program that was sub-.500 before he arrived all the way to a national championship in 2011. The former high school coach made the jump to the college game in 1996, joining Denny Crum’s staff at Louisville. When Pitino came aboard in 2001, Davenport stayed on staff, working with Pitino until 2005, when he moved on to Bellarmine.
11. Marvin Menzies: As a longtime assistant coach, Menzies' resume went on for pages before he joined Pitino at Louisville in 2005. Menzies’ career had hopscotched from the high school ranks to junior college to San Diego State to USC to UNLV. After just two seasons alongside Pitino, Menzies was a head coach, taking over at New Mexico State. He has since led the Aggies to three WAC titles and three NCAA tournament berths.
Others to be considered: Cal State Northridge head coach Reggie Theus (Louisville assistant, 2003-05); Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard (Louisville assistant, 2001-07); Florida assistant coach John Pelphrey (played at Kentucky); former NBA executive vice president Stu Jackson (Providence and New York Knicks assistant).
Coaches are the stars of the college basketball show. Fans identify with these guys not only because they look and act like fans on the sidelines, but because they got to that place through an entirely relatable pathway: They were smart, and they worked hard.
Very few people can play the game at a level worth dreaming about. There probably aren't very many more capable of coaching it that well, either, but that's not the point. The point is we all like to think we can.
Which brings us to today's argument, one of the college game's classic prompts for exactly the reasons listed above: All else being equal, including talent, resources, venue and crowd, which coach is the college game's best? "Best," in this instance, removes recruiting and season-long development, which are the two most important factors in any coach's success.
This is the thought experiment: Say you had two generic, identical teams set to play this Saturday. A coach gets between now and then to prepare his team. He coaches from the sideline throughout. The players in this scenario are essentially chess pieces sitting on a life-sized board. Your job is to pick a Grandmaster. Whom would you choose?
I've been having some version of this argument with friends and fellow fans since I was 10 years old, and I'm pretty sure there is no right answer. But here are a few nominees:
That might be true more often than not; Duke does take in more than its fair share of All-Americans every year. But for all of the borderline militaristic discipline Krzyzewski evinces, the fact is there has never been a better basketball coach in the sport's history at adapting his tactics to his talent and his matchups every season -- even every game.
The past decade of Duke basketball tells the story: The Blue Devils have played very fast (2006, 2008), very slow (2010) and at an average pace. They've created offense through spread-floor shooting, iso pick-and-roll attacking and brutish offensive rebounding (see: Zoubek, Brian). They've slapped the floor and created tons of turnovers, or sunk into a rebound-obsessed defensive shell. Often, these philosophical changes happen from one year to the next.
And all the while, Coach K has posted some of the most consistent after-timeout efficiency numbers in the sport, according to Synergy scouting data. A sample: 0.91 points per possession in 2009-10, 0.974 in 2010-11, 0.93 in 2011-12, 0.976 in 2012-13. Whatever impact coaches have on games between whistles, it is felt most acutely when they have spent the previous 60 seconds (or three minutes) with the clipboard in their hands. Coach K has been one of the best -- maybe the best -- then, too.
In other words, don't overthink it. Dude really is that good.
Rick Pitino, Louisville: This is slightly trickier. That's not to say Pitino isn't an immensely good game coach. Indeed, there is no more entertaining sideline presence in the sport, and I'm not talking about anguished facial expressions and bulging eyes. Pitino is entertaining because he's the one coach in the game that can genuinely convince you he has Jedi powers. His amorphous defense shifts between ball pressure and trapping seamlessly, and sometimes it looks like Pitino is genuinely moving players with his mind -- the closest thing to the chess metaphor college basketball has. Then he snaps his fingers, and on cue his team traps that hapless opposing point guard into a turnover and a score. It's strange and oddly beautiful in a way.
The only concerns here might arise from the fact that Pitino's personnel typically fits a certain type. He is at his best when he has put together talented, deep teams with guards quick enough to press and shot-blockers dominant enough to change shots when the dribble is allowed past Louisville's outer layer; it is not easy to put these kinds of teams together.
But Pitino is so good on short prep and with halftime adjustments that I'm not sure, for our purposes, the personnel stuff really matters. Go back to the 2012 West Regional, when the Cardinals pressed Michigan State into oblivion and changed their whole defense for a second-half rally against Florida. No matter who you put in the laundry, that guy is going to figure something out.
Has some of the luster worn off? Not really, even if he would have to admit Pitino outscouted and outcoached his No. 1-seeded Spartans in 2012. The argument against Izzo is not about his output -- it was just a few years ago that Michigan State made back-to-back Final Four runs, after all -- but about the fact that his greatest strength is his ability to pace his team's development throughout the season. By March, MSU is (usually) firing on all cylinders. That's not a coincidence.
That concern aside, though, let's be real: If you go to that many Final Fours in a relatively short period of time, you clearly have a special knack not only for building your team all season long but for short scout turnarounds and on-the-fly adjustments. You can't not. It's how the Spartans' coach earned his reputation 15 years ago, and it remains as viable as ever.
So those are probably my top three -- with a special nod to former Butler coach Brad Stevens, who would have made it a top four, and an emphasis on "probably." There are a handful of others worthy of honorable mention: Marquette's Buzz Williams hasn't missed a Sweet 16 in the past three years, and uses advanced stats in his game preps more fluently than any coach in the country. John Calipari was long dogged as an all-talent, no-chops recruiting wizard, and while I wouldn't put him in the same space tactically as Coach K or Pitino, he's about eight bajillion times better than a lot of people still seem to think. Bill Self may have a few tournament hiccups on his otherwise sterling résumé, but after-TO data reveals a consistently high rate of in-game success (plus there is, you know, all of the wins). And I'll be interested to see what Syracuse fans (or others) will say about Jim Boeheim, whose greatness is undeniable, even if his coaching style doesn't typically involve constant adjustments. (It's more like: Hey, here's our zone. See if you can score against it. Probably not.) Billy Donovan? Shaka Smart? Fred Hoiberg?
Of course, there are plenty of less-heralded but very smart guys out there, even at major programs -- people like Dana Altman, Gregg Marshall and Lon Kruger -- and dozens upon dozens of more in the mid-majors and lower divisions. But I can't name them all. Even if I could, the argument would rage on forever. We all might think we can be the head coach, but it's surely just as much fun to argue from a distance.
Louisville’s head coach was recalling a story back in the day when he was Boston University’s head coach and was passed over for the Penn State job.
It was an attempt to put what Balado had endured over the previous couple of weeks in perspective, to make the now-unemployed assistant coach feel at peace with his current situation.
“I had no idea where he was going with it,” Balado said. “It was a great story, but I had no idea how it related.”
Balado was all set to go to Minnesota with Richard Pitino after spending last season on his staff at Florida International. Balado wasn’t certain of his role, but the 37-year-old had a standing offer to join the Gophers in some capacity -- most likely as the director of basketball operations. Balado even went to Minnesota for nearly a week, but he was still being pursued by FIU athletic director Pete Garcia to remain in the program with new coach Anthony Evans.
Then came a late-night meeting with Evans the night before his introductory news conference. Balado was under the impression that he had a job offer to remain at FIU as a full-time assistant, and he even informed Pitino that he would be returning to FIU and the Miami area, where he’d spent the majority of his life, and therefore wouldn’t need to uproot his family.
However, after failing to hear anything from Evans for a couple of days, he became concerned and called the younger Pitino in hopes he could still have the director of basketball operations spot. The only issue was that Pitino had moved quickly and already filled the opening with Steve Goodson, a holdover from the Tubby Smith regime.
That’s when Balado had to tell his wife, Alicia, that he was in limbo without a D-I job.
“I was kicking myself for not staying at Minnesota,” Balado said.
“A coach's life is a roller-coaster ride,” Alicia Balado said. “You know what you sign up for, and it’s not always fun. It’s crazy, but I believe in Mike and knew that whatever happened, we’d be fine.”
Balado and his wife have 4-year-old twins. He’s been in the business for about 15 years, with stops at Nova Southeastern, Miami Dade Junior College, Florida Atlantic, High Point and, most recently, FIU.
However, now he was on the verge of taking an assistant job at Division II Barry University in Miami for $18,000 a year and also having to supplement his income as a personal trainer at the local YMCA.
“I was distraught,” Richard said. “It was the most difficult thing I’ve gone through since I’ve gotten into the business.”
So Rick Pitino called Balado and asked him to make the drive to Pitino's Miami home early one April morning.
“I knew what was going to happen,” Richard said. “I just know my dad.”
But Balado and his wife had no clue.
That’s when Pitino began reciting the story, the one in which former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno wooed a young Pitino way back in the early 1980s -- only to be disappointed when he didn’t get the job.
Finally, Pitino got to the point, telling Balado how it all worked out, and how shortly after being spurned by Penn State, Pitino was brought into the NBA by Hubie Brown as an assistant with the New York Knicks.
“Some things happen for a reason,” Pitino told Balado. “Good things sometimes come from misfortune.”
Then he pulled out a trio of $100 bills from his wallet and handed them to Balado, insisting he take his wife out for a nice dinner after the brutal few weeks the couple had recently endured.
Balado politely declined, having too much pride to take charity.
“You can afford it now,” Pitino said. “You’re an assistant coach at Louisville.”
Balado still couldn’t process what Pitino was saying. Here he was on the verge of having to struggle to make ends meet -- and now he was being hired as a full-time assistant with the defending national champions, earning a salary in excess of $200,000.
Balado broke down in tears before calling his wife, a high school teacher.
“I don’t think he thought it was real,” Alicia Balado said.
“He was crying like a baby,” Richard Pitino recalled. “He went from Barry University to Louisville.”
“It was great to be able to do it for someone,” Rick Pitino said. “But I did it because he was the type of person I wanted to hire. I like Mike a lot and know he’s going to be a very good coach at Louisville.”
So instead of spending the July recruiting period trying to identify and persuade Division II players to sign, Balado went on the road to watch high school stars who could help keep Louisville in national title contention.
“I feel like the luckiest guy in the world,” he said. “I’m not naive. I know a lot of people are a lot more qualified than me.
“But I’m going to prove to Coach Pitino every single day that he made the right choice to hire me."