Posted on: February 18, 2011 5:06 pm
Edited on: February 18, 2011 5:08 pm

With Sypher sentenced, Pitino can turn the page

Posted by MATT JONES

It's finally over for Louisville coach Rick Pitino. Yes, there are certain things in his life that have changed forever. The jokes will likely never end. Every time the Louisville coach calls a thirty-second timeout, someone will make the crack that it is time for "two Pitinos." Opposing student sections will continue to chant the name "Karen Sypher" towards him at every opportunity. And the once fruitful motivational speaking career has been all but completely destroyed by the legacy of his infamous night at an Italian restaurant. 

But for the parts of Pitino's life that matter most, the sentencing of Karen Sypher on Friday to 87 months in federal prison will close the door on its most embarrassing event. After a circus of a trial this summer, numerous attempts by Sypher to destroy Pitino's name in public and numerous pleas to the court for a new trial, a federal judge in Louisville ended the Pitino-Sypher saga for at least the next seven years. 

The remains left behind aren't pretty for the Louisville coach. He had to sit in a public courtroom and recount the graphic details of his sexual encounter with Sypher and her subsequent abortion. The testimony included some of the most embarrassing admissions a man could ever have to make and ensured that from a comedic perspective, the terms "Pitino", "15 seconds" and "Porcini's" will forever be linked. 

Due to the events, he was forced to ask his son Richard to leave the sidelines as an assistant under him at Louisville and instead take a job at Florida in order to avoid the limelight of the situation. Pitino said at the Sypher trial that the decision was one of the hardest of his life and he broke down while talking about telling his son to leave the UL program. He has had to deal with a diminished public perception that has made the state he once owned, a much more difficult place in which to reside.

But even if the events have been difficult to get through, make no mistake, he has overcome them. His Louisville team is overachieving this season, playing a form of basketball that harkens back to the exciting early Pitino years. The Cardinals will make the NCAA Tournament, likely as a 4 or 5 seed, an achievement that far exceeds where they should be from simply a talent perspective. Recruiting, which was once thought to be the true negative legacy of the trial, is at an all-time high for Pitino since he has been in Louisville. The Cardinals will add two McDonald's All Americans to next year's team and are situated to potentially contend for one of the best three classes in America in 2012.

I will be honest, those achievements have truly surprised me. I sat and watched all ten days of the original Karen Sypher trial and thought there was virtually no way Pitino could survive it. He was publicly humiliated to such a degree that I found it difficult to believe he could remain as the Louisville coach. The Pitino that sat in that courtroom looked like a shell of the Pitino we knew on the sidelines and I assumed that at the first opportunity, he would leave the city and start again.

But Pitino has persevered and some would even say, excelled. Boosted in part by naysayers like me and energized by competition coming from his rival John Calipari in Lexington, Pitino has put together his best coaching job thus far at Louisville. Now, with his extorter headed to prison and unable to spend any more time in public seeking to embarrass his name, Pitino can fully concentrate on his basketball program and turn the page on one of the darker chapters of his life. I still contend that there are less than five coaches in America who could have survived the ordeal and possess the rare combination of intense willpower and unquestioned University support necessary to remain in their position after such events. But Pitino had both, and he has not only survived, he has actually thrived.

Rick Pitino will never be able to forget the Sypher mess and it will put a stain on his legacy forever. But now with the blonde vixen headed to a federal penitentiary near you, he will no longer have to face it on a daily basis. The final chapter of Rick Pitino's coaching career is beginning and he now can face it from a pure basketball perspective. That must be music to the future Hall of Famer's ears.
Category: NCAAB
Posted on: February 9, 2011 10:29 pm

With one move, Mike Brey changes the game

Posted by MATT JONES

The difference between victory and defeat in college basketball often comes down to one play. Even in a forty five minute game that was as well-contested and intensely fought as Louisville and Notre Dame’s battle Wednesday night, the outcome can often be traced to one decision by a coach or player that totally shapes both teams’ fortunes.   

On Wednesday night, that play was not an individual’s dynamic move or a long-distance bomber’s clutch shot. Instead it was one decision by Notre Dame coach Mike Brey that took his coaching rival Rick Pitino slightly off guard and ensured his Irish team would have the opportunity to pull off their 89-79 win in overtime.

With the game tied in regulation, Louisville called timeout with 26 seconds left to set up a last-second shot and try to escape with another late victory. End of game situations have been especially fruitful for the Cardinals this season, as they have found a way to steal three late victories against Marquette, West Virginia and Connecticut based almost entirely on their ability to out execute against their opponent down the stretch. In the latter two games, Louisville found great success in clearing out for guard Peyton Siva and allowing him to create a final shot attempt one on one versus his man. Twice against Connecticut and one against West Virginia, Siva beat his man off the dribble and created a bucket that helped pull out a huge victory.

Fast forward to the end of game scenario on Wednesday night and the Notre Dame huddle before the final possession. Having seen the game tape of Louisville’s final possessions in past Big East games, Brey made one simple coaching adjustment that could have a profound effect on his team's season. Rather than allow the Cards to clear the floor and have Siva take advantage of his quickness against the defender guarding him in man defense, Brey told his Irish to play zone. If executed properly, this would keep Siva or one of the other Louisville guards out of the lane and force the Cardinals to find a different method to get off a final shot.

When Pitino’s team broke the huddle, it was clear the change in defense confused the Cards. They stood at the top of the key looking around frantically and then were forced to reverse the ball around the perimeter and settle for a contested three from Preston Knowles. Louisville had clearly prepared to face a man defense and the team was unable to change effectively enough on the fly to counter Brey’s clever change of strategy. The game went to Overtime with Notre Dame carrying the momentum and the Irish rolled to the win easily.

Had Brey not made the change, and simply defended Louisville in the same way Bob Huggins and Jim Calhoun, two bright coaches in their own right, had done, then we might be talking about how the gritty Louisville team stole another impressive road win. Siva could have taken the ball to the basket, finished with a layup or a pass to an open shooter and his role as a clutch finisher would have been the topic of this column. But instead, Brey made one small adjustment. And that adjustment set the table for the No. 7 ranked team in America to get a huge conference win.

It has been said in the past that a great college coach is worth at least 5 games a year. If that is true, Brey certainly got 20 percent of his quota on Wednesday in South Bend.

Category: NCAAB
Posted on: January 29, 2011 2:56 pm
Edited on: January 29, 2011 3:53 pm

Time to give Pitino his due praise

Posted by Matt Jones

After two months of fighting it, I grudgingly come to praise Rick Pitino’s coaching performance this season in Louisville. Believe me, all of my natural tendencies are to say that Pitino’s team has had success due to a combination of weak scheduling and fortuitous breaks in close games. But with Saturday’s win on the road against UCONN, I can no longer deny it. Rick Pitino is doing the best work of his Louisville career this season.

This edition of the Cardinals does not have the roster one would, or should, expect from a Rick Pitino team. There is not one player that has a certain NBA future and arguably the one with the most talent, Terrence Jennings, has consistently underachieved. The Cards are soft as butter inside and when they match up with most of the top teams in the Big East, they look vastly undermanned at nearly every position.

But this team has a moxie and toughness that recalls Rick Pitino’s Providence and early Kentucky teams. They hustle after every loose ball, play a tenacious brand of defense that gives their opponents fits and as shown against UCONN on Saturday, have a never-say-die attitude that allows them to remain in games long after they should have been eliminated. 

Already in the Big East this season, Louisville has come back from an 18 point deficit with 5:44 left against Marquette to steal a victory, but amazingly what happened against UCONN is more impressive. Down by two late in regulation, Peyton Siva (who just Wednesday added a game winner against West Virginia to his resume) weaved into the lane, driving by a host of UCONN defenders before squeaking in a game-tying layup. Then, down five with under a minute left in the first overtime, the Cards scrapped back with two late three pointers and once again saw Siva finish a clutch drive to send the game to a second overtime. In the unfamiliar setting of protecting a late lead in the second overtime, Louisville pressured UCONN into a desperation Kemba Walker thirty footer miss before stealing the most important win of the season.

It has been a trying few months for Pitino and the specifics of his difficulties often seem to be worn on his face every game. But his team has the youthful energy of the best of Pitino we remember over the last 25 years. Attacking the basket, dishing to open teammates and playing with an unselfish enthusiasm that as put a spring in Pitino’s step all season, makes the Cardinals a fun team to watch perform. They are capable of producing a dud every now and then, but they are also able to win games, in which from a talent perspective, they have no business even competing.

When I watch Louisville play, I continue to shake my head and wonder how the program has so little top-flight talent and what Pitino has been doing on the recruiting trail over the last three years. But then when the game gets to its closing moments and the team with the most poise and guts shines over the one with the better talent, I see Louisville grinding out another big win. None have been bigger than Saturday’s over UCONN and it is time for even Rick Pitino’s biggest critic to stand on the side and applaud what he has done this season.

Category: NCAAB
Posted on: January 26, 2011 11:24 pm

Peyton Siva lifts Louisville past Mountaineers

Posted by Matt Norlander

We're all enjoying San Diego State-BYU, but it's worth showing you how Louisville improved to 5-2 in the Big East and bounced back from a loss against Providence over the weekend.

West Virginia, currently playing without its best scorer due to a coach-issued suspension, nearly stole a win in Louisville, but Peyton Siva had a nasty crossover and just enough luck on the glass to give his team a win in the final seconds.

(H/T, @bubbaprog)
Category: NCAAB
Posted on: January 19, 2011 11:35 pm
Edited on: January 20, 2011 10:11 am

What we know and don't know: Wed night edition

Posted by MATT JONES

It was a relatively quiet night in college basketball, headlined by blowouts and embarrasing performances. Duke beat N.C. State, West Virginia got clipped by rival Marshall and Ohio State kept rolling by crushing Iowa. As far as the other important games, a review of what we know and what we don't know coming out of each of the most important scores of the night (picture of current St. John's "assistant" Gene Keady's hair included just for my amusement):


What we know: Mark Turgeon’s team is talented enough to get victories against good opponents at home, but tonight showcased that it is nowhere near worthy of its current top-10 ranking. The Aggies were dominated in every facet of the game in Austin and took a beating that should for the time being eliminate them from their status as a March “sleeper." Fortunately for Texas A&M, this was only one of two road games against ranked teams it will play, giving Turgeon’s group a chance to still finish with a gaudy record, before collapsing in March.

What we don’t know:   How good can Texas be? When their freshmen are playing under control and Rick Barnes is able to get big time production from Jordan Hamilton, Texas can look scary. The loss at home to UConn made me skeptical, but maybe we just write that up to the travelling show that Kemba Walker has become. Tonight, Texas was quite impressive and looked like a national contender, setting up a great battle on Saturday versus Kansas for early Big 12 supremacy.

LOUISVILLE   88,   ST. JOHN’S 63 : 

What we know : Louisville coach Rick Pitino has put together one of the better coaching performances of his career, taking arguably the worst set of talent he has had since the early Kentucky days and turning it into a team that will make the NCAA Tournament. This demolition of the team that in the preseason Pitino said could win the Big East, combined with the amazing comeback against Marquette, has the Cardinals sitting pretty as they head to the meat of their Big East schedule.

What we don’t know: What type of team is St.John’s? The Red Storm is in the middle of a brutal stretch in which it plays five ranked teams in six games and thus in theory, one dud of a performance isn’t a shock. But to lose by 25 in a winnable road game against a team that potentially could have provided a needed quality win ... well that makes one wonder if the senior-laden team will be worthy of its assistant coach's marvelous hair down the stretch.


What we know:   Purdue got handed a gift by a costly referee error that will sting the 10 people in Nittany Lion country who care about basketball. With Penn State up one and five seconds to go, a ball was clearly deflected off a Purdue player out of bounds, thus giving the Nittany Lions a likely road victory. However the referee standing right in front of the play gave the ball back to the Boilermakers for no discernable reason, giving Purdue one last shot at saving face. The Nittany Lions can only look in the mirror for the poor defense and open look on the ensuing play, but the opportunity should have never occurred.

What we don’t know:   Will Penn State’s run of shocking finishes be enough to get an NCAA Tournament bid? The Nittany Lions are only 3-4 in the Big Ten, but have beaten Michigan State and Illinois and nearly pulled off shocking upsets at Ohio State and Purdue. The schedule still gives Ohio State, Minnesota and Wisconsin at State College, and if the plucky group could win 2 of those 3, they could be the surprise story of the Big Ten.


What we know: Wake Forest is bad. I mean, like, historically bad. In the worst ACC in at least 20 years, Wake Forest has a legitimate chance to go winless, placing it in the discussion for worst team in the history of the conference. Think I am exaggerating? Then you didn't watch this travesty of a performance.

What we don’t know: Will Paul Hewitt save his job? Georgia Tech is now 9-8 overall and 2-2 in the ACC. One of those wins is an impressive victory over North Carolina, but the natives are still restless. The non-conference mediocrity probably puts a NCAA Tournament bid out of reach, thus his future job prospects likely rest on a finish above .500 in the ACC.


What we know:   Notre Dame is a different team when in South Bend than when they travel to non-Irish climates. The Irish are now 4-0 at home and 0-3 on the road in the Big East, and every game has been a relatively wide margin of victory or defeat. The Irish are able to beat anyone on their home court, but the chance to get a good seed in March will come down to grabbing road victories in the winnable matchups at Depaul, South Florida and Providence.

What we don’t know:   Will Cincinnati get any win to impress? The Bearcats are an impressive 16-3 overall, but in the Big East, their losses are to Syracuse, Villanova and Notre Dame, while the wins are over Depaul, Seton Hall and South Florida. No team is more difficult to rank nationally, or even in conference, as games against teams of similar strength have been few and far between. One of those however comes this weekend against at St. John’s in the first true test to see if the Bearcats are worthy of our attention.


What we know:   South Carolina’s early conference success means that the six best teams in the SEC likely all reside in the SEC East. The Gamecocks are now 3-1 in conference and have the potential to sneak into the discussion for an NCAA Tournament berth, after a start that included a road win at Florida. Darrin Horn’s team has a huge home game coming against Kentucky on Saturday, which could officially turn them into a conference contender. For Kentucky, coming off a loss to Alabama, the game has become somewhat of a must-win, making Saturday’s game in Columbia a sneaky must-watch.

What we don’t know:   Will any team from the SEC West make the NCAA Tournament? With the return of Renardo Sidney and Dee Bost, Mississippi State looks to have the talent of a member of the field of 68, but early losses while the two were ineligible probably keep them out of the field. The only two other teams with legitimate chances to go dancing are Arkansas and Alabama and the loss by the Razorbacks tonight will hurt come Selection Sunday. The SEC West as a division owns college football and is low mid-major in college basketball.

Posted on: January 15, 2011 11:42 pm
Edited on: January 15, 2011 11:45 pm

Five Takeaways from Saturday's games

Posted by MATT JONES

1.       Top two escape at home:  With Duke losing earlier this week to Florida State, next week’s top two teams will be Ohio State and Kansas. However both squads got quite a test from unlikely opponents at home on Saturday. Ohio State was forced to rely on a clutch performance from the top freshman in America, Jared Sullinger, who produced a key three point play with 13 seconds to go and the score tied, in order to beat surprising Penn State. The Buckeyes trailed at times in the game and looked more vulnerable than at any point in the past few weeks, potentially giving future Big Ten opponents insight into how to beat its multi-pronged attack. As for Kansas, it slept walked through much of the game, falling behind by ten points to Nebraska early in the second half at Allen Fieldhouse. The Jayhawks did just enough to survive down the stretch, but its 63-60 win suggests that its previous close calls to Michigan, UCLA and USC aren’t simply aberrations, but are par for the Jayhawks’ course. While both teams will go into next week, Nos. 1 and 2, they also both look quite beatable by virtually any team in their respective conferences


2.        No lead is safe:  Vanderbilt had to assume its quick 17 point lead against rival Tennessee would be enough to help it win in Knoxville and slam the door shut on the Vols’ bizarre season. But a late run led by Scotty Hopson helped the Vols to a comeback victory that gives them a slim sliver of life left in the SEC. With Bruce Pearl not yet halfway through his suspension, the win kept Tennessee from opening up conference play 0-3 and showcased that even though its fans were ill-prepared for the rivalry game (only 500 or so people showed up for a College Gameday taping before the game), its players weren’t ready to demolish the season just yet. Even more impressive was the absurd comeback by Louisville, which looked on the verge of NIT land when down 18 to Marquette at home with 5:44 left. But with a late dash of steals, quick scores and four Preston Knowles three-pointers, it made one of the more improbable comebacks in recent college basketball history. For Rick Pitino, the game means his team keeps its head above water in the Big East, while Marquette’s Buzz Williams has to live with one of the worst coaching and team collapses in recent memory.


3.       Florida disappoints again:  No team is more impossible to predict this season than the Florida Gators.  The same team that won impressively in road games at Tennessee and Xavier, has fallen at home to Central Florida, Jacksonville and today, South Carolina. The 72-69 loss to the Gamecocks comes right as I was about to take Florida seriously once again. It looked tremendous in its gutsy win over the Vols in Knoxville and the combination of Alex Tyus, Chandler Parsons, Erving Walker and Kenny Boyton seemed to give the Gators enough multiple scoring threats to make them scary in conference play. But now after the loss, we are left with the same Florida team that has disappointed so often in the last three years. Inconsistency, thy name is Florida.


4.       San Diego State and Texas A&M are legit:  If you saw San Diego State in the pack of unbeatens and determined that they were simply a fluke beneficiary of fortunate scheduling, I hope you took note of today’s 87-77 win at New Mexico.  The Aztecs controlled the game at the Pit, led by D.J. Gay’s 30 points and an impressively diverse set of offensive options that make them a terror to try and defend. While New Mexico isn’t a Top 25 team, it is talented and a win in one of the best home courts in America is proof that Steve Fisher’s group is not to be taken lightly. Similarly, if you were ready to assume that No. 13 Texas A&M was going to fade in Big 12 play, that conclusion also may need to be revisited. The Aggies won a hard fought 91-89 Overtime victory over Missouri that showcased what a talent it has in Sophomore Khris Middleton. His name spelling is similar to the Aggies as a team, surprising and orthodox, but potentially with the win over Missouri, now a contender for best in a suddenly deep Big 12 conference.


5.       A-10 and Conference USA Flops: Both the Atlantic 10 and Conference USA leagues consider themselves to be worthy of respect and national attention and often shun the notion that they are “second-tier” leagues in college basketball. When one of the leagues has a dominant team, it is thus good for its image as a potential national power, as showcased by St. Joseph’s and Memphis in recent years. Until today, both teams thought another such team could exist this year, but Temple and Central Florida both laid an egg in humiliating road defeats. Neither Temple’s 78-66 loss to Duquesne nor Central Florida’s 86-69 defeat at Southern Miss was ever close and both defeats exposed the weaknesses of the previously ranked teams. For now at least, both leagues will suffer from diminished attention due to the lack of power at the top of the standings.


Posted on: December 31, 2010 6:30 pm
Edited on: December 31, 2010 9:24 pm

Josh Harrellson's career day sparks Kentucky


Posted by Matt Jones
College basketball rivalry games are often defined by unlikely heroes who step up and deliver performances that immortalize them as legends of the program for years to come. And when it comes to unlikely heroes, very few have been more surprising than Josh Harrellson , who ensured he will never want for a free meal in Kentucky for the rest of his life after spurring UK to a 78-63 win over Louisville at the Yum! Center.  The man that Kentuckians call "Jorts" (due to an infamous picture taken of him wearing jean shorts on his recruiting visit) scored 23 points and pulled down 14 rebounds in an effort that even he labeled after the game as "shocking."  Shooting 10-for-12 from the field, Harrellson scored by doing what unlikely heroes do, being in the right place at the right time and taking advantage of opportunities -- in this case, openings caused by double-teams on star Terrence Jones. His career night included an unlikely three-point bomb that led Jorts to hold three fingers up in the air and John Calipari to shake his head in disbelief.
Had one been guessing two months ago, the thought of Harrellson no longer being on the team would have seemed more likely than him being the key factor in a victory over an arch-rival.  After a solid performance in an exhibition game, Harrellson went on Twitter and complained that coach John Calipari did not give him credit for his game, instead focusing on Josh's mistakes in a post-game press conference.  Calipari responded to the criticism by publicly scolding Harrellson on Twitter and also instituting a series of early-morning workouts as punishment.  The coach required Harrellson to do six a.m. workouts every day and suggested that if Harrellson balked, his career with the Wildcats could be over.

What followed was a transformation of Harrellson's body and game so shocking that he hardly looks like the same person.  Whereas he was once a player that was big and bulky, his dramatic weight loss and newly-found muscles could potentially lead to an exercise tape called "Body by Jorts."  Whereas he was once a slow, lumbering big man best known for having a decent outside touch, now he is a figure that can be relied upon to control the glass and give UK a presence in the paint that seemed to be a lost cause going into the year.  For his part, Harrellson calls the Twitter fiasco, the "best thing that ever happened to me", as it changed his view of his role on the team from jokester who felt fortunate to be on the team, to a true contributor who can help create a victory.

Harrellson's contribution was by no means the only reason for Kentucky's victory.  In fact, the entire game showcased just how large a gap currently exists between the Cats and its arch rival .  Louisville looked tentative, slower and most significantly, substantially less-talented than their Kentucky opponents and at no point seemed likely to win the game.  Kentucky's Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones not only played better than Louisville, they looked to be on a different level than their Louisville counterparts.  Kentucky stopped Louisville's transition game by controlling tempo from the outset, thereby negating the Cards' best chance to pull off an upset and ensuring that the team with the best talent would win.  If Friday showed us anything, it is clear that team resides in Lexington.

All of which makes the performance by Harrellson that much more impressive.  Over the last two seasons, he has played on a team with eight players that either were, or are likely to be, first round NBA Draft picks.  He has consistently been overlooked on nearly every level, including being left off the team's pre-season poster given out to fans in order to make room for yet another highly touted Calipari draft class.  He was the classic afterthought, only a factor in this season because UK could not get Enes Kanter eligible or find another big man with more talent.  Yet that guy, the one that no one thought would ever make a difference, that guy had a career day against his team's biggest rival and made himself a name that will always be associated with a Card thrashing.

That is the stuff from which legends are made.  
Posted on: December 30, 2010 9:56 pm
Edited on: December 30, 2010 9:58 pm

Rakeem Buckles out for Louisville against UK

Posted by Matt Jones

An unfortunate series of injuries for Louisville Coach Rick Pitino became even worse this afternoon when he announced that Rakeem Buckles would be out at least two weeks with a finger fracture that occurred during practice this week.  Buckles had figured to be a key component for Louisville in its rivalry game against Kentucky and his loss cuts down on one of the major advantages Pitino's club figured to have, its depth.  Pitino said the injury was a freak incident and hoped that Buckles would be back soon, even though he would miss the rivalry battle.

For Louisville, it is the latest in an injury plague that has seen starter Jared Swopshire lost for the year an reserves Mike Marra and Elisha Justice lost in the last two weeks.  This has caused a team that once was ten players deep and had the ability to matchup with its opponents in a myriad of different ways, to now play with only seven and much more limited in its style of play.  With the game versus Kentucky likely to be called very tightly by the referees due to the physical nature of last year's contest, depth figured to be an important advantage for Pitino's club.  But now both teams come into the game equally thin and hoping to avoid whistles that could cause important playing time for players who rarely have seen the court.
Category: NCAAB
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