In case you haven’t noticed, the Louisville basketball program is in trouble. A lot of trouble.
It wasn’t too long ago that the Cards were the fourth-ranked team in the nation, oblivious to their talent deficiency and struggles against mediocre teams, and willing to declare themselves not only the best team in the nation, but also a candidate to be the first team in thirty-six years to run the table. Point blank, period.
But in the days since Hurricane Chane jinxed his team with only a few thoughtless words, the Cards have spun out of control. They’ve lost five out of their last seven games, including a humiliation at the hands of Providence on the night Rick Pitino was honored. Peyton Siva forgot how to dribble and shoot and then how to smile. Wayne Blackshear needs to drop a dress size. The Cards have decided that they apparently don’t like each other very much or, according to Chris Smith, spend too much time listening to family members who don’t like their teammates. Peyton Siva’s dad blamed the devil and Kevin Ware’ dad blamed Peyton Siva. Rick Pitino? He blamed C.L. Brown.
And after a loss to Marquette this afternoon, the Cards, who are still floundering in the top-25 somehow, now appear bound for the NIT. And, umm, by the way, guys….Rick said last year was the rebuilding year. Not good.
But guess what? It could get worse.
On Friday, Bullitt East junior Derek Willis will sit before his peers at 4 pm and announce where he’ll go to college in eighteen months. The 6’9″ Willis, formerly a Purdue commitment, will pick between the Boilermakers, the Indiana Hoosiers and the two familiar faces of Rick Pitino and John Calipari. In just about every situation, this is a considerable advantage in the direction of Lexington. But Willis is different.
Willis is a kid that has admitted to not be too in awe of the UK mystique and though he’s not a Jefferson County kid, he’s pretty much playing his high school ball in Louisville. Kentucky didn’t offer a scholarship until late and Pitino has been seen at his games more than Calipari has. And, oh yeah, by the way, Willis’ parents are Louisville fans. His dad wears UofL hats to his game and when I was at Bullitt East last month, every kid that came over to talk said it was no secret that Willis likes the Cards. So despite the apparent mismatch nationally in terms of recruiting, Pitino and Calipari’s first Battle In The Bluegrass appears to be decidedly in Pitino’s favor.
And that is what makes this potentially so damning. If Willis announces Friday that he plans to enroll in Dinosaurs and Disasters with Dr. Greb in the fall of 2013 instead of sticking close to home with the Cards, it could be the final nail in the coffin for Rick Pitino’s coaching career.
Derek Willis isn’t LeBron James and he isn’t going to rewrite either school’s record book as a freshman, but he’s representative of the bigger picture that has become the bitter rivalry between Rick Pitino and John Calipari.
It’s like Pitino is a fine hand-rolled cigar that was once fresh and sported a robust flavor and delicious aroma. It was the kind of cigar you were proud to have in your collection and one you took great pride in enjoying. But over time, that cigar continued to burn and burn and you were afraid to ash it, instead choosing to keep it intact and pretending that it was still that fresh, delicous cigar. Now, it’s nothing more than a nub with an embarrassingly long ash and everyone else wonders why you’re still pretending that it’s something that everyone else can see that it is cleary not.
And with every calculated move, John Calipari flicks a little of that ash free, making it harder and harder to even remember how delicious that cigar once was.
Three for three against the Cards? A little flick.
Louisville doesn’t exist? A little flick.
Taking over the Dominican team? A little flick.
Denny Crum coaching in the UK exhibition? A little flick.
And after three years of flicking away the ash that still somewhat reminded us what Rick Pitino once was, if John Calipari were to land a commitment from Derek Willis Friday, he will have basically taken that last smoking piece and snuffed it out in the ash tray.