Pearl, Pitino Succeeding Through Tough TimesPosted by jstevrtc on December 13th, 2010
We hate the off-season. The only college basketball there is to watch is whatever we decided to keep saved on our TiVOs or DVRs from the previous season, we’re coming down from the buzz of traveling to see games during the year, and we know there are certain friends we won’t hear from for about six months. Like the rest of college hoopheads, we rely on occasional stories from certain topics to get us through — recruiting, the buildup to the NBA draft, the musical chairs game in the coaching world, and so on. Still, every summer feels longer than the last.
This off-season was different. In addition to the above, we had a little conference realignment, a decision on the fate of the Tournament (specifically, the number of tickets to the dance), and a couple of big-time coaches dealing with scandals from which they’ll most likely never separate themselves. The specter of the Karen Sypher scandal haunted Rick Pitino for months, and Bruce Pearl is still in the middle of dealing with the recruiting scandal he’s heaped upon the Tennessee program.
These guys have been around the business long enough to know, though, that there’s one way to make everybody ignore the giant elephant in the arena, and that’s winning. It would be understandable for players at either of these programs to take their respective head coaches a little less seriously or feel — dare we say it — a little less respect for them after the summer their head coaches had. Put yourself in a high school prospect’s place; if you’re a recruit and you sign with a coach, whether you chose that particular person because you think they’d be the best teacher for you or because you think they’re more likely to help you get to the NBA, it’s still an intimate trust, either way. And when that coach brings shame upon themselves and the program you now find yourself a part of, well…it’s simple to see how a kid could feel betrayed.
Yet here we are about a month into the season and Louisville (8-0) and Tennessee (7-0) are two of the hottest teams in the country.
It’s true, the Cardinals haven’t exactly faced a bunch of presumptive 1-seeds on their way to their unblemished start, and they won’t even leave the state of Kentucky until January 9th when they travel to South Florida for their second Big East game of the season, but there’s a good chance they’ll be 12-0 heading into the bloodsport known as the Louisville vs Kentucky showdown, as they’ve got four opponents they should beat until they, er, welcome the Wildcats into the KFC Yum! Center on New Year’s Eve. More to the point, Pitino now has all this Sypher nonsense behind him, though we don’t mean to minimize any long-lasting effects it may have had in the Pitino household (we will not speculate on that). He’s got his squad playing outstanding defense — they’re 13th in the nation in defensive points-per-possession (0.82), 4th in the country in defensive FG% (35.7%), and 15th in the nation in guarding the three (26.6%) — and Pitino’s teams usually play better defense as the season progresses. He’s got them playing unselfish basketball (18.1 assists per game, 7th nationally) and rebounding with abandon (9th nationally with 39.6 boards per game).
Things are a tad more dire at Tennessee, since any punishments for any crimes committed by Pearl and his assistants are still forthcoming. But that makes what Pearl’s team has done so far even a little more impressive than what’s happened at Louisville. Pearl and his players have a lot of reason to believe that the fine season they’re building right now will never lead to any sort of post-season play, since such a penalty from the NCAA is a realistic possibility. Despite that, the Volunteers already own scalps from two of the Big East’s top teams (Villanova on 11/26 and Pittsburgh on Saturday), Scotty Hopson put on one of the finest offensive displays we’ve seen this season so far on Saturday (27 points on 10-13 shooting and 3-3 from three), and five out of their next six games are at home before they host Memphis on January 5th. Everyone involved with this program knows that whatever comes down from the NCAA isn’t going to be very friendly and they have every reason to fold. Instead, Bruce Pearl has this team playing inspired basketball.
It only seems right to end on this note: given everything that’s happened in the lives of Messrs. Pitino and Pearl over the past few months, we’ve dedicated more than a few lines to their troubles. We’ve had a few laughs and even offered our unsolicited advice. We don’t apologize, because what these men did, they did to themselves (and by extension, their programs) and their transgressions were awful and inexcusable. But we’ll always give credit where it’s due. Because of the events of the past off-season, you couldn’t blame one single Louisville or Tennessee coach or player if their heart just wasn’t into it this time around, or if it just took a little longer to get going this year. Yet Pitino and Pearl have their teams playing with tremendous heart so far, and that’s why they’re both undefeated. That’s worth celebrating, for now — no matter what’s on the horizon.