John Clay: U of L fans' domination dreams may yet be realized under Pitino

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 6, 2012 

head coach Rick Pitino of the Louisville Cardinals in the semifinal game of the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament Saturday, March 31, 2012, in New Orleans. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff

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Back in 2001, when Rick Pitino finally tore himself away from his NBA failure and took a leap of faith that was being the head coach at the "other" basketball school in the state where he once used to work, many figured only one scenario would result.

Cardinal domination.

(There is actually a University of Louisville sports blog with that very name.)

This was based on Pitino's glorious run as the Kentucky coach, when the New Yorker rode in on his white horse and led a probation-saddled program to three Final Fours, two national championship games and one national title.

Surely, upon having the good sense to return to the sport he once ruled, at a school with a storied basketball history of its own, Pitino would take up near permanent residence at the Final Four and clear out some more space in his personal trophy case for additional NCAA title trophies.

Alas, it has not been so. Through 11 seasons as the Louisville leader, Pitino's bottom line reads as follows: two Final Fours, zero titles.

Meanwhile, down I-64 where Pitino once drew his paychecks, Pitino's arch-enemy John Calipari has taken command of the Cats' carnival and ignited a Big Blue Bonanza of breathtaking talent that last season led to the program's eighth national title.

Once fearful of Pitino's presence in the River City, Big Blue Nation now chants: Kentucky rules, Louisville drools.

Ah, that could change this season, however. With Pitino fresh off a Final Four trip last season to New Orleans, the so-called experts have inked the 2012-13 Cardinals into either the top spot or the No. 2 perch as we head into another basketball season.

The reason? Depth. Or shall we say depth, depth and more depth. Why, Pitino has so much depth on this year's roster he can barely find enough scholarships for them all. In fact, he can't.

"We have 10 really good guys," the coach said on Big East Media Day, the same day the Big East media picked the Cardinals to win the conference championship.

To win, says Pitino, you have to play great defense. And depth helps there, as well, what with Pitino able to run body after body on the floor as part of his full-court pressing scheme.

"You've got to be a great defensive team to make it to the Final Four and we are a great defensive team," said the coach at media day. "We're not there yet with some things, but we certainly are a good defensive team."

Many a good defensive team has an eraser in the middle, which Louisville has in center Gorgui Dieng, who may be the nation's best at that particular skill now that Anthony Davis is toiling for the New Orleans Hornets. OK, so Kansas' Jeff Withey isn't bad either, but Dieng certainly ranks up there.

It also helps to have a good point guard, and Louisville has the Big East pre-season Player of the Year in senior Peyton Siva. The hope is the years have matured Siva, who can sometimes spiral out of control on the floor. But the Washington state native played well enough to lead the Cardinals to the Final Four last season and he is expected to point U of L in that direction again.

Now toss in the (hopefully) healthy Wayne Blackshear, Chane Behanan, newcomer Montrezl Harrell and Russ "Russdiculous" Smith, among others, and now you know what we mean by all that depth.

Truth be told, Louisville had a potential national title team in 2009, only to lose to Michigan State in the Elite Eight about the time that a Pitino personal scandal was about to break. We won't go there. It is three, going on four years now. Times have changed. Teams changed.

But the man can still coach. Never mind that Calipari has taken the state by storm, relegating Pitino to the sideline. Never mind that some think this could be Pitino's last, best shot to win another title. Some, but not all. Including Pitino, apparently, who after making some noise about retiring in the near future, reversed course and signed a contract extension last week that lasts through 2022.

That's the Rick we know and UK fans once loved. That fear about Pitino and Louisville and world domination turned out to be unfounded. This year, however, the Cards could in fact dominate. And so could their coach.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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