Mark Story: What's at stake for Cal and Pitino, Mitchell and Walz as March Madness begins

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 6, 2014 

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari was unhappy with an officials call as defeated #1 Kentucky 78-74 on Tuesday November 12, 2013 in Chicago, IL. Photos by Mark Cornelison Staff

MARK CORNELISON — Herald-Leader Buy Photo

In college basketball coaching, reputations are made — and jobs can be lost — in March.

The good news for our state's four marquee college hoops head men — John Calipari and Rick Pitino, Matthew Mitchell and Jeff Walz: nobody is coaching with their job anywhere close to on the line.

Yet all four have much riding on the 2014 version of March Madness. Below, in order of who faces the least pressure to who faces the most, we examine what is at stake this month for each.

Rick Pitino

Recent tournament trends: Since Louisville's round-of-64 elimination by Morehead State in the 2011 NCAA Tournament, Pitino is 7-0 in conference tournament games and 10-1 with two Final Four trips and a national championship in the NCAA Tournament.

What's at stake in conference tournament: Though 25-5, U of L's NCAA tourney résumé is light on signature wins. The Cardinals have only one victory over an RPI Top 25 team (No. 15 Cincinnati). A league tourney that will feature UC, No. 28 Connecticut and No. 32 Memphis (using realtimerpi.com) could give Pitino's Cardinals a chance to add two more quality wins.

What's at stake in NCAA Tournament: A third straight U of L Final Four trip would make Pitino the first coach in our state's history to produce that "three-peat." With seven career Final Fours, Ricky P. is behind only John Wooden (12), Mike Krzyzewski and Dean Smith (11 each) all-time.

Jeff Walz

Recent tournament trends: Walz has led the U of L women to the NCAA finals twice since 2009. The upset the Louisville coach engineered in last season's NCAA Tournament over defending national champion Baylor stands as one of the best coaching jobs in college hoops history.

What's at stake in conference tournament: Presently, ESPN.com bracketologist Charlie Creme has Louisville (28-3) a No. 2 seed but in the same region with defending NCAA champion and undefeated Connecticut. If U of L could upset Geno Auriemma's Huskies in the American Athletic Conference tourney finals, would that be enough to propel the Cardinals into a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs?

What's at stake in NCAA Tournament: With a tournament-tested roster led by senior Shoni Schimmel, Walz has a prime chance to become the first coach in Kentucky to produce back-to-back appearances in the women's Final Four since Western Kentucky's Paul Sanderford did it in 1985 and '86.

Matthew Mitchell

Recent tournament trends: In the four seasons before this, Mitchell has led the Kentucky women to the SEC Tournament finals three times and to the NCAA Tournament round of eight three times.

What's at stake in conference tournament: Presently, ESPN women's bracketology has Kentucky (22-7) as a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tourney — which would mean, if seeds held, UK would face a No. 1 in the round of 16. In the last 10 years of women's NCAA tourneys, No. 1 seeds have claimed 23 of 40 Final Four berths (by comparison, in the men's tourney, No. 1 seeds have claimed only 14 of 40 Final Four spots). Winning the SEC Tournament — especially if it included victories over Tennessee (No. 5 in RPI) and league champion South Carolina (No. 6) — could boost Kentucky off the No. 4-seed line in the NCAA Tournament.

What's at stake in NCAA Tournament: Mitchell's record in those six games in the NCAA tourney Elite Eight and the SEC Tournament finals is 0-6. Five of those losses (all but last season's defeat against Texas A&M in the SEC tourney championship) came against teams with visibly superior talent to UK. Still, until you break through in a "big game," you are subject to the assertion that you can't win them.

John Calipari

Recent tournament trends: In his first three seasons as Kentucky men's head coach, Calipari went 8-1 with two titles in SEC Tournaments and 13-2 with two Final Fours and a national championship in the NCAA Tournament. Last season, however, UK went 0-1 in the SEC tourney and was bounced from the first round of the NIT by Robert Morris.

What's at stake in conference tournament: In the lackluster SEC, the only team UK (22-8) could beat that would move the needle is Florida, and the Cats cannot face the top-seeded Gators until the championship. Because the SEC tourney ends on Selection Sunday, that may be too late for a Kentucky upset to factor into the Cats' NCAA seeding.

What's at stake in NCAA Tournament: After three years in which Calipari was undisputed king of Kentucky, the past two seasons have not gone well. With "one-and-done fatigue" seemingly on the rise, Cal's hold on the UK fan base seems to be loosening. Winning some NCAA tourney games could help Calipari flip the narrative back in his favor.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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