LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- On the afternoon of Sept. 18, Rick Pitino was catching a quick snooze on the futon in his office when he was awakened by a knock on the door. Pitino jumped up and splashed some water on his face in hopes that no one would notice he had been asleep.
The sight that greeted him was a wonderful wake-up call: His entire team was standing behind a cake full of candles. They had surprised their coach to wish him a happy 60th birthday.
For a lot of men, turning 60 can be a depressing experience. Not Pitino. It has been a long time since he felt he has this much to celebrate. "I'm having more fun the last two years than at any time since I was at Kentucky," Pitino told me last weekend over lunch at Patrick O'Shea's, located just down the street from the KFC Yum! Center. We met there a few hours before Louisville's annual Red-White scrimmage. "I have something most people don't have with their job. The people I deal with are the best in the business -- my athletic director, my sports information director, my president. We have a very unique experience here. And our players are great kids."
They're great players, too. After dropping four of their last six regular season games last year to finish seventh in the Big East, Pitino's Louisville Cardinals caught fire at exactly the right time, winning four games in four days to capture the Big East tournament title and then going on to reach the Final Four, where they lost to Kentucky. Now, Louisville returns three starters and it has added two quality freshmen plus a stud transfer. No wonder Pitino sounds so happy.
"Our new guys will more than make up for what we lost," he said. "The negative is they have a bullseye on their back. We won a lot of close games last year. They have to realize they need to match the emotions of every team we play."
The fact that Pitino is talking about emotional issues rather than physical ones underscores how good he thinks this team can be. In 6-foot senior point guard Peyton Siva, 6-6 sophomore forward Chane Behanan and 6-11 junior center Gorgui Dieng, Pitino has arguably the best players at their position in the Big East, if not the entire country. They also return 6-foot junior guard Russ Smith, who was indispensible in the postseason, as well as two talented sophs whose freshman seasons got off to late starts: 6-5 swingman Wayne Blackshear, who missed the first 24 games while he was recovering from shoulder surgery, and 6-2 guard Kevin Ware, who sat out nine games before becoming academically eligible.
To this very potent mix, Pitino added two freshman he picked up in the late spring as well as 6-6 junior forward Luke Hancock, a transfer from George Mason whose work ethic and attitude was so impressive that last April, Pitino named him a co-captain along with Siva. If this group stays healthy -- and given that four players missed 25 games or more last season, that is far from guaranteed -- then it will comprise the fastest, deepest roster in America.
Ah, but there's a rub. (Isn't there always a rub?) The Cardinals may be big and quick, but they are too often unpredictable and sloppy. After watching the Red-White scrimmage, I can see why Pitino called them "very, very weak fundamentally -- over the top weak." This is especially true when it comes to outside shooting. Last season, Louisville ranked 11th in the Big East in free throw percentage, 12th in three-point percentage and 13th in field goal percentage. Louisville's 42.2 percent clip from the field was the lowest among teams to make the Final Four in nearly 50 years. And the two starters they lost -- senior guards Chris Smith and Kyle Kuric -- were the top two three-point shooters.
So how did the Cardinals get to the Final Four? Besides getting healthy, there were two primary reasons: They played terrific defense, and they made timely shots. Nobody exemplified those two factors better than Russ Smith, whom Pitino has affectionately (I think) dubbed "Russ-diculous" because of his wacky shot selection. Smith was a reserve who played just 21.5 minutes per game and converted 35.6 percent from the floor, by far the lowest among players in the main rotation. Yet, he attempted more shots than anyone else on the team. Let that marinate for a moment.
Despite those 21.5 minutes per game, Smith still set a single-season steals record at Louisville. His 19 points off the bench allowed the Cardinals to win their regional final over Florida. When he's at his best, he's Russ-tastic. "I doubt I could have coached him 20 years ago. He breaks every play," Pitino said. "When you put him in the game, you have no clue what's going to happen offensively or defensively, but you have to let him go. You might as well not play him if you don't let him go."
That Pitino takes such joy in dealing with this kind of player shows where his mindset is as he enters his 27th season in college coaching. It is a much different mindset than he had just two years ago, when he came much closer to quitting than many people knew. Pitino had suffered through a disappointing season that ended with a first-round loss to California in the NCAA tournament. Since he had unexpected free time that weekend, he worked in the CBS studio. He enjoyed that experience a great deal, even though Charles Barkley disemboweled him over the Big East's poor performance. After the weekend was over, Pitino contacted a prominent television agent, who had some preliminary conversations on Pitino's behalf with ESPN about using him for the network's college and NBA coverage.
Pitino thought seriously about going into broadcasting fulltime until he mentioned the idea to his wife, Joanne. "That conversation lasted about 20 minutes. She said absolutely not," Pitino told me. There were two main reasons he stayed. First, he had just brought his son, Richard, back to his staff at Louisville as an assistant. (Richard had left to join Billy Donovan at Florida, largely because Rick wanted him to be out of town while Rick dealt with the personal and legal issues in the Karen Sypher case. Richard is about to begin his first year as head coach at Florida International.) Second, Joanne reminded her husband that he had promised Christine Minardi -- whose father, Billy, was Joanne's brother and Rick's best friend and died in the World Trade Center on 9/11 -- that he would stay at Louisville until she graduated from high school. Christine is now a junior, so Louisville fans can rest assured that Pitino will stay on the job for at least one more season.
In the past, I have tried not to overreact to Pitino's musings on this subject, because they can change daily. But he sounded credible when he told me that he wanted to coach for five or six more years. Pitino has seen many of his coaching peers try to retire but decide to return after realizing that no matter how much golf they play, they're never going to be good at it. Pitino is happy with what he is doing, and he learned the hard way by leaving Kentucky that you don't mess with happiness. "When you turn 60, a lot of your friends and relatives are passing away," he said. "I wouldn't say it's depressing, but I'm aware of it. It makes me appreciate every little thing."
Before I get to my breakdown, here are three quick thoughts from the Red-White game:
• Gorgui Dieng is going to have a big year defensively, but don't expect him to be a polished scorer. He only played 29 minutes in the scrimmage and shot 3-for-10 from the floor with seven turnovers. The 10 field goal attempts is deceiving because most of them came off of rebounds. Dieng did not try a single bona fide post move all day. "I told him, your offense will determine whether you go pro [next spring]," Pitino said. "If his offensive game evolves, he'll go next year. If it doesn't, he'll wait another year. But it's getting better."
• Pitino got himself a very nice find in 6-8 freshman forward Montrezl Harrell. Harrell originally signed to play for Virginia Tech, but when that school fired Seth Greenberg, it released Harrell from his commitment. Harrell doesn't look like a freshman; he stands a chiseled 235 pounds and has a 7-3 wing span. But what really impressed me was his court sense and offensive abilities. He scored on a nice pull-up jumper from 15 feet, and he showed he can make a move with his back to the basket and score over both shoulders. Harrell will be able to guard three frontcourt positions, and Pitino said he could play backup center. "We got two kids late that I could have recruited for three years and not gotten," Pitino said. "That's how crazy the game is."
• Pitino also told me that Siva and Dieng are "maybe in the top five human beings I've ever coached. They're honorable, caring, never get in trouble, they're polite. They don't swear. It's very unusual." When I asked Pitino who set the "human being" standard amongst his former players, he did not hesitate to answer: "Billy Donovan." Naturally.
Herewith, my breakdown of the Louisville Cardinals:
Heart and soul: Siva. When I saw Siva in the locker room after the game, I told him, "You look like a man." I had an interesting frame of reference because I had just visited Ohio State the day before. I have to say, after watching both teams in action, I would take Siva over Aaron Craft. Craft is a better defender, but Siva is just so good at getting by people and his shot is vastly improved. The difference now is that he's making better decisions once he gets into the paint. Pitino credited that maturity to a 30-minute video session in late February when he showed Siva highlights of Steve Nash. "Peyton was going by anybody, but he'd get caught having to make a decision," Pitino told me. "By watching Nash, he learned to keep his dribble and get out of the lane if he had to." Pitino added that Siva has improved his shooting form to add better balance.
Most improved: Ware. The good news is, Ware scored 22 points in the Red-White game. The bad news is, it took him 21 shots. But for a guy who made eight field goals all last season -- and none from three-point range -- that actually represents progress. I also liked that Ware grabbed 10 rebounds, which will earn him playing time even if he isn't scoring. Just as Pitino had Siva watch video of Nash to improve his point guard play, he showed Ware video of Ray Allen to help him with his outside shooting. "Kevin has gone from the ugliest jump shot I've ever coached to an average-to-good jump shot," Pitino said. I'm almost positive that was a compliment.
Glue guy: Hancock. Pitino is not mincing words here. "The key to our whole season is Luke Hancock," he said. "He gives us what we don't have." Pitino was referring not only to Hancock's shooting -- during his sophomore season at George Mason, Hancock shot 49.4 percent from the floor, 35.9 percent from three and 81 percent from the foul line -- but also his maturity and leadership.
For example, about a week after Hancock arrived at Louisville, the players decided they were going to have a weighlifting session at six in the morning. When two of the veterans showed up a half-hour late, Hancock barked at them, "Where the f--- were you guys?" Pitino laughed as he told me that story, but it's clear Hancock will continue to embrace his role as warrior, on and off the court. "I played for a coach at George Mason [Jim Larranaga] who taught us to take pride in the little things," he said in the locker room after the Red-White game. "I'm not a superior athlete like a Kevin Ware, so feel like I've got to try harder than most players."
X-factor: Behanan. The obvious answer here should be Smith -- Will he be Russ-diculous or Russ-tastic? -- but to me Behanan is the more critical player. His talent is undeniable. He isn't real big for a power forward (6-6, 250 pounds), but his combination of athleticism and strength is Barkleyesque. When Behanan finishes on the break, he dunks the ball down.
Yet, put him in a halfcourt setting, and Behanan makes foolish spin dribbles and fires no-look passes that sail out of bounds. Morevoer, Pitino raised some red flags about his attitude. "He needs to love basketball more. What I've found is you've got to force him in the gym," he said. "I also worry about his lack of humility. He's a great kid, but this is an environment where you can't get full of yourself. It's the greatest killer of potential when everybody tells you how good you are. He loves the limelight too much."
Those words were still ringing in my ears when I saw Monday's Associated Press report that Behanan will be suspended for the team's exhibition opener and is not allowed to talk to the media for the first semester because of unspecified "incidents" that took place over the summer. Pitino is trying to nip something in the bud here. The question is, will the problem go away, or will it mushroom into something bigger and more troublesome?
Lost in the shuffle: Angel Nunez, 6-8 sophomore forward. Nunez was hurt more than any other Cardinal by the arrival of Harrell. He had shown some flashes of potential as a freshman and put on 15 pounds of muscle in the off-season, but between Harrell, Dieng, Blackshear and Behanan, there aren't going to be a whole lot of frontcourt minutes available.
Bottom line: There is always a danger in overreacting to a team's hot postseason run. Let's not forget that Louisville also lost by 31 points at Providence in early January. But much of the Cardinals' first-half struggles had to do with their rash of injuries. Once they got healthy and into a groove, they were tough to beat.
I think they'll be tough to beat again. The Cardinals have talent, experience and character at the two most important positions on the court -- center and point guard. They have depth, athleticism, and they are as good defensively as any team in America. And to state the obvious, they are very, very well-coached. In other words, the sky's the limit. It says here they're going back to the Final Four.