University of Louisville

Louisville basketball preview: Don't underestimate Pitino's passion, coaching savvy

Louisville guard Russ Smith, left, received instruction for head coach Rick Pitino.
Louisville guard Russ Smith, left, received instruction for head coach Rick Pitino. Associated Press

First of all, no one ever got rich underestimating Rick Pitino, but we'll get back to that in a minute.

Let's start with this: Rick Pitino turned 62 in September.

It's true. I looked it up. I didn't believe it either, but there it was right there in his biographical information, Rick Pitino, born Sept. 18, 1952, in New York, New York, the city so nice they named it twice.

Wasn't it just yesterday that the guy was 37 years and old and starting his first year as the Kentucky basketball coach?

We could say it has been a long and winding road since then, but we'd be wrong because it has been more like a road with two points. Pitino left UK after the 1997 season for the Boston Celtics. After failing there, he came back to Kentucky, only this time as the coach at Louisville.

It was a strange thing to do, but then Pitino has done some strange, impulsive things before, and most of those have worked out for the better. Not all, but most.

Let's get back to the subject matter at hand, however, which is Rick Pitino is 62 years old and, let's face it, he's starting over, again. He's starting over in two different directions.

No. 1, Pitino's got a new team. For 2014-15, Louisville has six freshmen and five holdovers. No more Russ Smith. No more Luke Hancock. Smith was a National Player of the Year during his U of L career, or should have been. Hancock was the MVP of the 2013 Final Four.

"We want to rebuild in a month, not a season," Pitino said after his team's first scrimmage.

No. 2, Pitino has a new league. He's in the ACC now. That's the league of Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams. That's the league of Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Wake Forest, etc., the league that added Syracuse and Pittsburgh.

"We're going to have to be ready," he said.

If you remember, Pitino once said that he wouldn't coach past the end of his contract, which at the time was scheduled to end in 2017. He didn't want to be an old coach, he said.

Less than a year later, he signed a contract extension through 2022. He said he didn't know what he'd do without coaching, how he would spend his time, how he could walk away from the game he loved.

"My passion and enthusiasm is better at 61 than it was at 31, and I had great passion back then," he told the AP. "I think it's the players the last four years that have enhanced the passion. They stir my drink because they are so enthusiastic, so willing to learn and have such a great attitude."

Winning will do that.

The last three years, Pitino has won an NCAA title (2013), been to another Final Four (2012) and reached the Sweet 16 (2014).

His 2010 team lost in the first round to California, but Louisville was just a No. 9 seed, so the defeat wasn't unexpected, and Pitino was building for the future.

If he's rebuilding this season, it's not like that 2010 season. His program is in much better shape. He's rebuilding, but he's in the top 10.

He has Montrezl Harrell, as explosive a player as there is in college basketball. Harrell is still polishing his game, bit by bit, piece by piece, but he's also a centerpiece, something Pitino can build around.

Then there's the backcourt of Chris Jones and Terry Rozier, both on the short side, both on the explosive side. It will be interesting to see what the departure of Smith, who had a tendency to monopolize the basketball, will mean to Jones and Rozier, who like to have the ball in their hands, as well.

It will also be interesting to see how Pitino adapts to the ACC. Rickie P. vs. Coach K. Rickie P. vs. Daggum Roy. Rickie P. vs Tony Bennett, a veritable new kid on the block. Rickie P. vs. his old, old friend Jim Boheim, such friends they can each say the other is full of you-know-what and get away with it. Only friends can do that.

It will also be interesting to see how Pitino handles the fact that up the road all the attention is on John Calipari, with his ridiculous roster, his NBA Combines, his platoon system and his non-stop way of being, well, John Calipari.

It's a challenge, but then Pitino has faced a lot of challenges over his still-continuing coaching career. The birth certificate says he's 62 years old and the job title still says coach, because he could not imagine doing anything else.

No one ever got rich underestimating Rick Pitino.

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