Rick Pitino likes his 2016-17 Louisville basketball team. He’s said so publicly. He likes its potential. He likes its depth. He likes its talent. He has even compared it to the 1996 national championship team he coached at Kentucky.
Here’s something he’s not going to like: The focus this season isn’t going to be on Pitino’s players. The focus is going to be on Pitino.
Scandal makes it so. Less than a month before the season’s first game, the NCAA officially released the results of its investigation into the so-called “Stripper Scandal” and accused U of L of four serious violations and criticized Pitino for not properly monitoring former staffer Andre McGee.
By now, you probably know the details of said scandal, whether you wanted to know the details or not. From 2010 through 2014, including the Cards’ 2013 national title season, McGee arranged and paid for strippers to provide entertainment, including sex, at 22 shows for players and prospects. Many occurred in the players’ Billy Minardi Hall, named for Pitino’s late brother-in-law who was killed in 9/11.
Pitino is fighting the accusations, not the ones concerning what was going on with his players on his own campus, but that he failed to monitor McGee. If he didn’t know, he should have known. He’s the head coach. He’s the one responsible.
“I over-monitor my staff,” said the coach at the news conference announcing the official notice of allegations.
It was classic Pitino, who has always wanted to have everything both ways.
On the one hand, he wants us to believe he had no knowledge of the parties being held for recruits and current players. In the nearly four years that the shenanigans were taking place, somehow not one assistant or player ever said to Pitino, “Do you know what’s going on over in Minardi Hall?” The coach was completely in the dark.
On the other hand, accused by the NCAA of not properly supervising his staff, Pitino’s defense mechanism is to leap to the opposite extreme. If he’s guilty of anything it’s going too far. He supervises too much. He cares too much.
“I’m guilty of trusting someone,” he said.
It’s like his love/hate relationship with Big Blue Nation. Once the Kentucky coach, he made the choice to coach UK’s in-state rival — an understandable decision given he was returning from his NBA failure and Louisville was the best college job available — and yet he still wanted to be loved by Kentucky fans — a belief not grounded in reality.
When the scandal first broke in October 2015, not long after Pitino’s own personal sex scandal involving Karen Sypher, who was convicted of extortion, I wrote Pitino should step down for the good of the program. If he didn’t know about what was going on at Minardi Hall, he should have known. He’s the one responsible for the program.
I stand by that, but it’s not going to happen, of course. Pitino isn’t quitting. And Louisville isn’t quitting on its basketball coach, one who won the school a national title in 2013. It’s fighting for him, contesting the accusation he failed to monitor.
Despite the school’s efforts, however, Pitino is still likely to receive some form of punishment. A suspension is probable. A show-cause penalty isn’t likely but isn’t out of the question, either. With the NCAA, you’re never entirely sure what might happen.
You can be sure of this: No matter how good Louisville basketball is this season, no matter how many games it might win, the talk will be of Pitino and punishment and scandal.
Last season: 23-8, did not participate in postseason due to a self-imposed ban resulting from a sex scandal.
Coach: Rick Pitino
Conference: Atlantic Coast
Who’s gone: F/C Chinanu Onuaku, G Trey Lewis, G Damion Lee
Who’s back: G Quentin Snider. Louisville’s top returning scorer at 9.4 points and playmaker with 3.5 assists per game last season; G Donovan Mitchell, who averaged 7.4 points and provided high-flying highlights; G/F Deng Adel, whose versatility might make him the team’s best player; F Mangok Mathiang, a senior who’s recovering from a season-ending foot injury.
Who’s new: G V.J. King, a high school All-American; F Tony Hicks, a graduate transfer who averaged 12.8 points per game during a three-year career at Penn but sat out last season.
The skinny: While the ban is behind the Cardinals, the NCAA accused the program of four violations it must answer in January. With penalties unlikely until next summer, Louisville is eligible for the postseason and believes it can make a deep tournament run with a quick, athletic team Pitino promises will press the tempo on both ends.
Notes: Mitchell has dropped 18 pounds and weighs around 195, while junior forward Jaylen Johnson has shed weight that Pitino believes was slowing him down. Both players appear faster and more agile and are eager to see what opportunities arise from being lighter. “I don’t get tired as easily and feel more energetic,” Mitchell said. “It might seem small, but that makes a big difference playing in this up-and-down system.”
▪ Onuaku’s departure for the NBA Draft caught Pitino off guard, and filling the void he left in the pivot could be a concern. Junior 7-footers Anas Mahmoud and Matz Stockman continue to develop but must step up their games to man the inside until Mathiang returns.
▪ Last season’s success with graduate transfers Lewis and Lee led Louisville to choose that route again. This year’s “one-and-done” is the 6-1 Hicks, who averaged 12.8 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game over three years at Pennsylvania. The Cardinals also added 6-5 sophomore Dwayne Sutton, who averaged 12 points per contest last season at UNC-Asheville. He will sit out this season per NCAA transfer rules but has three seasons of eligibility remaining.
▪ The Cardinals’ non-conference schedule presents plenty of challenges in preparation for the tough ACC docket. Besides their annual Bluegrass showdown against rival Kentucky (Dec. 21), they face Purdue in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge (Nov. 30) and Indiana on New Year’s Eve in Indianapolis. Louisville also faces Virginia twice and hosts Duke on Jan. 14.