It was a relatively quiet day around the UK nation as the football team continued its Music City Bowl prep and the basketball team tried to regroup from the difficult experience in Houston. With no real news of importance or any more breaking information on the walking menace known as Mark Krebs, there has been time to focus on the utter embarassment that has been this season for Rick Pitino. As the cartoon above showcases (printed on the Courier Journal website today), the fallout from the ridiculous means by which Ricky P handled the Derrick Caracter situation continues to be the #1 story around Louisville basketball this year and until they showcase any desire to even be a moderately good basketball team on the court, it will be the only relevant topic surrounding the team for the season. Simply put, Ricky P has, in just over a week, brought to light all of his most negative qualities, sacrificed all of his positive principles which could be admired and sold out whatever integrity his program might have….all to make sure that the Cards do not fall to teams like Marshall.
Let me first say that I have no illusions about what we are dealing with here in college basketball. The notion that college athletes should be held to some higher standard is ridiculous. We all know that many, if not most, of the college basketball players on major Division I programs would not even be admitted at that university were it not for their basketball talent. Programs such as Louisville have long ago stopped trying to make any connection between athletics and academics, as seen by their decision to bring in players who, at most, want to be at the University for 1-2 years and have absolutely no interest in an education outside of the hardwood. The connection between athletics and academics has never been farther apart and for better or worse, that ship has sailed and is not coming back. Thus to act as if Pitino owed the university some type of action to uphold “the standards of the institution” is silly. Basketball is not about academics….its not when its going well, and it is not when a problem occurs either.
What Rick Pitino has done is completely taken away all of his credibility for the near future. A couple of weeks ago, Pitino stood up and told the nation that Caracter had serious discipline issues and that he would be suspended “indefinitely”, which likely meant more than a few games. At this press conference, Pitino informed everyone that the transgression actually occurred the night before the Dayton game, but after meeting with the team and taking a vote, all parties agreed that his suspension would start after the game because…..well at least Pitino was honest, “they needed the game” in order to make the NCAA Tournament. So the presumed long suspension of Caracter, complete with “contracts” to be signed, potential movement out of the UL basketball dorm and games missed began in earnest on that Sunday, nearly two weeks ago.
We all know the next act. Louisville plays badly against Purdue on Saturday, loses again…..Pitino comes to the media touting the changed person that is Derrick Caracter and welcoming him back on the team. The move was as important as it was blatant, and Caracter became a Card yet again. I admit that I was shocked when the move occurred, mostly because even I didnt think Rick could embody all of his worst traits so fully in one action. We had Rick the drama queen, standing up in front of the media, touting all that Caracter had done wrong one week and all that he had accomplished the next. We had Rick the self-promoter, telling us all that he has done to try and save Caracter and teach him to become the man that he can be. We had Rick the truth-bender, telling the media he would be out for some time one week, changing his mind the next and having the utter audacity to argue that the decision had nothing to do with the Cards’ on-court performance. And maybe worst of all, we had Rick the victim, throwing his hands in the air as if to say “what can a coach do when the kids act like this?”
All of these traits have been seen in Rick in one form or another throughout his career. However they have been amplified to a great degree in his last few years at Louisville. For reasons I cant quite put my finger on, he simply hasnt had the success at Louisville that many, including he, believed he would. Whether it was a slowness in adjusting to the new recruiting eras, a difficulty in relating to players, a change in the style of the college game or the realities of a different program than the one 70 miles down the road, Rick simply hasnt done what I thought he would do at Louisville…..produce a consistent top 5-7 program year in and year out. I always knew Rick had no real sense of loyalty (if for no other reason than taking the rival team’s job in the first place), but I always thought he knew how to coach. But after 6 seasons, his teams have only made it to the Sweet 16 once and have been NIT bound twice….honk if you thought that would happen at this point in his career.
When Rick speaks about this, he always plays the role of surprised outsider, shocked as to what occurrences have had an effect on his program. However, a smart coach might look at his decision to focus on NBA-driven players like Sebastian Telfair, James Lang, Edgar Sosa and yes, Derrick Caracter, as part of the reason his college program has found difficulty. When you meet with three players, as Rick did this summer, and tell them that they can leave for the NBA early after the season, how can you be surprised when they have one eye to the league? Rick has privately complained about the lack of a “family” atmosphere around the program at times, but how can you be surprised about this when you treat your program as a one-stop breeding ground for New York kids to take a sojourn before the NBA train comes cruising into town. UNC, Duke, Kansas, etc keep family atmospheres because the kids go to that school to play FOR that school and program. Rick sells Rick…..so why act shocked when Louisville doesnt become important for these guys….if that was important to Rick, he would sell the great Louisville tradition, not the great Pitino tradition.
Even with all that however, you still at times could give Pitino one thing….when it came to discipline, he was on top of it. As Rick Bozich pointed out in his outstanding CJ column last week, Rick was known to suspend players for one game for trying to do gamesmanship at the free throw line, much less two curfew violations in one night. He kicked off multiple players at Louisville and pushed transfers at Kentucky when he believed a player was not holding up his end of the off-the-court bargain. Even when you got annoyed at all of Rick’s actions, you could always say, “he does get the kids to do the right thing.” But all that changed last week. We learned last week that when the player was good enough (think Caracter and not Brandon Bender) and the situation was dire enough (think now, not the 96 Cats when Rhodes was sent packing), principles become malleable. In order for Louisville not to fall apart, Caracter needs to be out there….period. Were Padgett and Palacios not hurt, then maybe Derrick could stay suspended and Pitino could talk about “personal responsibility.” But that isnt the case, and the Cards need a big man. Thus this week discipline, like the previous traits of loyalty, integrity, honesty and consistency, becomes yet another victim of the Rick Pitino experience. Over six years into his time in Louisville, one thing has become clear…..the Cardinal basketball program deserves better.