Men's Basketball

Historic path open to Pitino

DAYTON, Ohio — In this spring of Kentucky basketball discontent, I rise this morning with a warning for the Wildcats faithful.

Brace yourselves.

With high seeds being bounced left and right from the Midwest Region, the path is dramatically clearing for Rick Pitino to complete a truly historic double.

If Pitino and NCAA Tournament No. 1 overall seed Louisville can add the 2009 national title to the one Ricky P. won at Kentucky in 1996, he will be the 13th coach with multiple men's hoops national crowns.

But he will be the only one to do so at two schools.

Even more distinctive, it will be two bitter rivals.

In the same state.

Whose fans loathe each other.

It would be the equivalent of Bear Bryant winning national titles for Auburn as well as Alabama.

I wondered if, in the eyes of the basketball community, the rivalry aspect of the potential "Pitino Double" makes it a more significant achievement?

"It would be incredibly special," said Travis Ford, the point guard for Pitino's 1993 Kentucky Final Four team and now the head coach at Oklahoma State.

"But I know Coach would just look at it as wanting to succeed at the highest level wherever he coached. He wouldn't be caught up in the whole rivalry aspect at all."

Mike DeCourcy, national college basketball writer for The Sporting News, said Pitino winning national titles for both UK and U of L would "make it a more interesting achievement. I don't know that in itself makes it any better."

Conversely, Bob Ryan, the longtime Boston Globe sports columnist, said winning championships at archrivals "would be a bigger thing.

"Knowing Rick, I thought he made mistake when he took (the Louisville) job because I thought he would never be accepted," Ryan said. "But the way to be accepted is to deliver the goods."

Pitino's chances of delivering the championship goods this year seem only to have increased this weekend. The upset bug has gone through U of L's side of the Midwest bracket like the sniffles through a nursery school.

No. 4 seed Wake Forest? Out. No. 5 Utah? Adios. No. 8 Ohio State? Goner.

Before the Buckeyes lost, Louisville was looking at meeting OSU in a second round here in Ohio. In other words, basically a road game.

Before Wake Forest fell, many regarded the Demon Deacons as the team in the Midwest with the physical ability to most threaten Louisville.

U of L would have caught Jeff Teague and Co. in the round of 16.

Instead, Pitino and his Cards are now set up to reach the final eight without having to beat any team seeded above No. 9.

U of L has already beaten No. 16 Morehead State. The Cards will be heavily favored here Sunday against ninth-seeded Siena.

If Louisville wins, it will face either No. 12 Arizona or No. 13 Cleveland State in the region semifinals.

This clearing of the bracket is especially beneficial to U of L because, if the Cards have a potential Achilles' heel, it could be close games under tournament pressure.

There is some unfortunate NCAA tourney history at work for several key Louisville players.

In 2006, point guard Edgar Sosa riddled Texas A&M for 31 points. But in the last minute of a one-point game, he missed a pair of foul shots (after making 15 in a row in the game) and took an ill-advised 25-foot jumper that cost the Cards a chance to win.

During that same tourney, swingman Terrence Williams made only six of 16 shots and had nine turnovers in two games.

Last season, with a Final Four berth on the line against North Carolina in the East Region finals, U of L star Earl Clark had seven turnovers.

Even Pitino, who has taken three schools to the Final Four, is only 2-4 in NCAA games decided by five points or less or in overtime.

U of L's team free-throw percentage of 64.3 doesn't inspire lots of crunch-time confidence, either.

Anything that should lessen the number of close games likely to occur in the NCAAs should be greatly to Louisville's advantage.

It's going to take a good team playing well to threaten U of L. Pitino says the current Cards are the best full-court pressing team he's had at Louisville.

Which means, as always, the key for his team is its field-goal percentage. "Because when we make shots, we can get our press on," Pitino said.

With the U of L side of the Midwest bracket parting like a Red Sea, the "Pitino Double" looms as ever more viable.

Like I said, UK fans, you might want to brace yourselves.