John Clay: A little luck, a lot of Pitino brings Louisville's odd collection to brink of title

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistApril 5, 2013 

  • Men's Final Four

    At the Georgia Dome in Atlanta

    Saturday's semifinals (CBS-27)

    6:09 p.m. — Louisville (33-5) vs. Wichita State (30-8)

    8:49 p.m. — Michigan (30-7) vs. Syracuse (30-9)

ATLANTA — There is more than one way to win a championship.

Last season, John Calipari signed the nation's finest freshman class, sprinkled in a trio of talented holdovers, then cut down the nets on national championship night.

If Louisville is holding the trophy and messing with Rick Pitino's hair this Monday night, the Cardinals will have earned their hardware in a completely different manner.

Louisville's roster is a collection of different components, of A-listers and no-listers, of transfers and near-transfers.

"Yeah, well, it's a little bit different," Pitino admitted last week as his Cards were capturing the Midwest Region. "The circumstances were kind of incredible."

Peyton Siva was rated the nation's 39th-best recruit coming out of Seattle, Wash., back in 2009. Wayne Black-shear was ranked 36th coming out of Chicago in 2011. Chane Behanan was ranked 21st coming out of Bowling Green High School in 2011.

The rest of the roster is almost a series of happy accidents, whose development has again served to illuminate Pitino's artistic talents.

"You've got to recruit the right people, evaluate the right talent," Pitino said Friday. "Russ Smith and Gorgui Dieng I don't think were rated. Russ Smith, from New York City at a famous high school, was not recruited by one Big East school, not one. If it wasn't for those two guys, we don't play in two Final Fours."

Pitino didn't give Smith a second look coming out of South Kent School in the Bronx before longtime Pitino friend and former assistant Ralph Willard talked the coach into taking him.

By January of his freshman season, Smith had his bags packed when teammate Rakeem Buckles talked him into staying for one more game.

"We were playing West Virginia, and little did I know Coach needed me and put me in the game," Smith said Friday. "I hadn't really even dressed for the game. ... I don't think I was even taped."

After the season, Smith reignited his transfer talk — "I wanted to send him to another planet," Pitino joked — until his father nixed the idea.

"He said, 'We're not going to tap out,'" said Smith, the Midwest Region's Most Outstanding Player.

How about Gorgui Dieng?

The 6-foot-11 project from Kebemer, Senegal, was a consolation prize after Louisville missed on former Syracuse center Fab Melo, last seen with the Maine Red Claws.

Montrezl Harrell? The 6-7 booster shot off the Louisville bench was released from his letter of intent by Virginia Tech when Seth Greenberg was axed.

"Kevin Keatts placed Montrezl at Hargrave (Military)," Pitino said of his assistant coach. "So, obviously, when Seth got fired, he knew Kevin, and we were lucky enough to get him."

Sharpshooter Luke Hancock is a similar story. After Jim Larranaga left George Mason, Luke Hancock decided to follow suit. Keatts coached Hancock at Hargrave.

"And (Hancock's) brother lived in Louisville," Pitino said. " So we got lucky there as well."

Then there's the famously injured Kevin Ware, who at this very moment may be chatting with new phone pal Michelle Obama while keeping Oprah Winfrey on hold.

"Kevin Ware is probably the most famous person I know," Siva said Friday.

The Georgia high school star committed to Tennessee before Bruce Pearl was fired for fibbing to the NCAA. Ware was on his way to Central Florida before it ran into trouble with the NCAA.

"He had to go somewhere," Pitino said.

Sometimes you find talent and sometimes the talent finds you.

This isn't to question Pitino's recruiting record — his 2009 team, also the tournament's overall No. 1 seed, was overflowing with top-drawer signees — as much as it is to praise his still-dynamite ability to be the architect of the action.

The man isn't being named to the Basketball Hall of Fame on Monday — news leaked Friday — for no reason.

After all these years, there is still no coach better at squeezing a player until his potential pops.

"There's no science to it," Pitino said.

It's more like an art.


Men's Final Four

At the Georgia Dome in Atlanta

Saturday's semifinals (CBS-27)

6:09 p.m. — Louisville (33-5) vs. Wichita State (30-8)

8:49 p.m. — Michigan (30-7) vs. Syracuse (30-9)

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

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