Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Congratulations to the Cardinals

For the second year in a row, and for the 11th time since 1948, the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship is coming to the Commonwealth of Kentucky.  The Louisville Cardinals, champions of the Big East Tournament, the Midwest Region, and the NCAA Tournament, take home their third title to go with the ones that they picked up in 1980 and 1986.  The Cardinals finish with a record of 35-5 overall, and a well-deserved national title.  I thought their lack of outside shooting would do them in, but I was wrong -- when they had to make three-point shots, they did so.  And their defensive intensity and rebounding was simply extraordinary from beginning to end.

Finally, I cannot say enough about Rick Pitino and the job he did this year.  I spent almost every day from November 1989 through April 1997 thinking about Rick Pitino, and I know him better than I know almost anyone in the history of sports.  The job he did with this team captured his personality and work ethic to perfection.  And consider this:  Pitino and his disciple, Billy Donovan, have now won four national titles -- as many as Dean Smith and Roy Williams.  And that's not even counting UK's national title in 1998 -- the year after Pitino left.  For years, some UK fans have taken grief for saying that Tubby Smith only won that title because of Pitino's influence.  But think about how that 1998 team won it all -- the lack of NBA-quality talent, the big come-from-behind victories, the better legs and energy at the end of games, the barrages of three-pointers to make up double-digit deficits, and (perhaps most tellingly) the extraordinary output from players like Cameron Mills in huge late-game situations.  None of Tubby Smith's other teams looked remotely like his 1998 squad, but this year's Louisville team has many of the same qualities.  Kentucky fans knew, from years of watching Pitino's teams, how to recognize his calling cards, and today we all saw definitive proof that he's still got the old magic.

If anything, Pitino's record still doesn't reflect his true quality as a coach.  He could have won four national titles at UK alone -- he lost in overtime in the elite eight in 1992, in the final four in 1993, and in the finals in 1997 -- and victories in any of those games might have led to a title.  He also left behind a team for Tubby Smith that did win the title in 1998.  He wasted what would have been the prime years of his coaching career in a futile effort to revive the Boston Celtics, and then he wasted more years having to rebuild a U of L program that was mired in Conference USA.  If he had stayed at UK from 1990 to the present, I have no doubt he would be regarded as the greatest college basketball coach since John Wooden.

I wish the U of L fans didn't hate UK so much, because I do know how they feel.  They have wandered in the woods for a long time, and they must have wondered if they would ever again reach the peaks they enjoyed back in the 1980's.  But they never lost faith, and they were never willing to accept the second-tier status that the rest of the world assigned them.  And now they are back on top.


  1. Here are the final rankings of Kentucky's seven D-1 teams, according to Ken Pomeroy:

    1. Louisville: 35-5
    48. Kentucky: 21-12
    115. E. Kentucky: 25-10
    139. Murray St: 21-10
    174. W. Kentucky: 20-16
    229. Morehead St: 15-18
    239. N. Kentucky: 11-16

    And now we can all go outside and enjoy the nicer weather, and wait for next November, when it will start anew.

  2. It's Jim Nantz Week in America, baby--nobody's going outside.

  3. Sorry it didn't work out for the Louisville women's basketball team, too. I've mentioned that Coach Jeff Walz is from Fort Thomas Highlands High and NKU, and Sara Hammond, the big star of Rockcastle County High's 2011 Sweet Sixteen champ, was the Cardinals' lading scorer (15) and rebounder (five) in last night's 90-63 loss to Connecticut. Antonita Slaughter of Christian Academy of Louisville also started for U of L, and the also included Shelby Harper from Allen County-Scottsville, Tia Gibbs of Louisville Butler and Monique Reed of Louisville Fern Creek (as well as Monny Niamke, a woman from France who played at Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia before transferring to Louisville).

    Whereas the relative talent of Kentucky boys' high-school basketball players to the rest of the country appears to have declined since, say, 1971, I'm starting to wonder if we are in the golden days of Kentucky girls' high-school basketball. The KHSAA didn't do girls' championships after the 1920s until 1975. Hammond was the first Kentucky girl to be selected for the McDonald's All-American game, but Kentucky had two players--Marion County's Makayla Epps and Owensboro Catholic's Becca Greenwell--for this year's game. The first McDonald's girls game was played in 2002. In the window of 1975 through 2002, WKU had a couple of Final Four teams in the mid-1980s that were led by Kentucky talent (particularly Lillie Mason of Olmstead and Clemmette Haskins of Bowling Green Warren Central). And one of the big stars of its 1992 Final Four team was Kim Pehlke of Louisville Doss. But I'm not sure Kentucky has ever produced as many starting-quality basketball players for NCAA women's basketball than it is right now.