LOUISVILLE (WAVE) – Before I close the book on the 2018-19 University of Louisville men’s basketball team, I want to call a foul on myself for not being more critical of the NCAA tournament committee’s decision to pit the Cards against Minnesota in the first round.
Minnesota, of course, is coached by Richard Pitino, son of controversial Hall-of-Famer Rick Pitino, who was fired by UofL after a series of sex and recruiting scandals. His ego damaged, the elder Pitino has filed a $40 million lawsuit against UofL for firing him without cause.
I’m sure the network TV people liked the call because it added juice to the tournament’s opening round. I’m sure Pitino and his buddies liked it because Richard had nothing to lose (the Gophers were underdogs) and much vindictiveness (for his dad) to gain.
But what the committee ignored were UofL first-year coach Chris Mack and his players, especially those who have endured so much unwanted exposure here for the last two or three seasons.
The Cards overachieved. They won some games they weren’t supposed to win and did some memorable things along the way. They handed North Carolina such a beating in Chapel Hill that it motivated the Tar Heels into becoming dramatically better. They are the only team in college basketball to hold a 23-point lead over Duke in the second half. And so on.
But there also were too many winnable games kicked away in the final minutes due to poor shots and passes, lapses in judgement and lack of leadership on the floor.
Still, this team deserved to return to NCAA play for the first time since 2016 without having to deal with Pitino questions. It should have been put someplace where all the coaches and players had to do was savor the moment and talk only about basketball.
I respect Richard Pitino and his players too much to take anything away from their victory over the Cards. They played with energy and enthusiasm, and they shot the three much better than they had at any time in the season. They deserved their victory.
But I also believe UofL deserved better than to have the Pitino ugliness be the main story line heading into their NCAA opening game. There is almost something premeditated and cruel about it, and the NCAA really needs to do some soul-searching about that.
It’s probably too soon to begin talking about next season, even though that might be the right antidote to any blues lingering from how this season ended. If the six incoming freshman who already have signed grants-in-aid are as good as advertised, and if they are joined by another talent or two, then the returnees are going to have to fight their tails off for playing time, which is a good thing.
For the record, the eight returnees are expected to be 6-2 junior guard Darius Perry, 6-11 junior big man Malik Williams, 6-4 redshirt freshman swingman Wyatt Battaile, 6-6 senior swingman VJ King, 6-10 senior big man Steven Enoch, 6-5 senior forward Dwayne Sutton, 6-0 senior guard Ryan McMahon and 6-7 junior forward Jordan Nwora.
Of these, the only ones who might even consider coming out for the NBA draft are Williams and Enoch, because of their size, and Nwora, because he was the Atlantic Coast Conference’s most improved player.
The freshman class will include 6-6 small forward Samuell Williamson from Texas, 6-5 combo guard David Johnson from State Tournament champion Trinity High, 6-8 power forward Jaelyn Withers from Cleveland, 6-4 shooting guard Josh Nickelberry from Fayetteville, N.C., 6-8 power forward Quinn Slazinski from Huntington, W. Va., and 6-10 center Aidan Igiehon of Woodmere, N.Y.
It’s much too early to speculate about a starting lineup, but I feel strongly there’s an outstanding team in there somewhere. The freshman class is ranked No. 1 in the ACC and among the top five in the country.
Stuff still is hanging overhead, a black cloud consisting of the Pitino lawsuit, UofL’s role in the FBI’s sting operation into Adidas and its top clients and an NCAA investigation.
But that didn’t prevent the six blue-chip recruits from signing with the Cards. None of the alleged bad conduct happened on Mack’s watch, and the coach knows he must put it out of his mind and trust Athletics Director Vince Tyra and the administration to handle it in the most honorable ways possible.
Rick Pitino could do a lot of people, including myself, a lot of good by dropping his lawsuit. Heaven knows, he doesn’t need the money. He’s made his point about his innocence, shifting the blame to assistants. Dropping the suit would make him look big and magnanimous instead of small and petty, and that certainly would help if he wants to coach college basketball in America again.
It probably won’t happen, of course. Rick is still too bitter. But his son, to his credit, handled questions about the squabble between his dad and UofL with class. He did not allow himself to be drawn into making comments that would only make a bad situation worse.
I know that Mack and his players must surely appreciate how Richard handled it. But it was easier for him, because he’s coaching in Minnesota and his fans don’t care a bit about what’s happening in Louisville. He is detached from it, while Mack and his players live with it every day.
So, yeah, the NCAA tournament committee should be ashamed of itself for pitting the Cards and Gophers in the first round. There had to be a better way. But that would have entailed have some empathy for student-athletes, and the NCAA just seems totally clueless in that important part of a young person’s life.
Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter from Louisville who contributes regular columns to WAVE3.com.