How far has the Louisville Cardinal basketball “brand” fallen? Consider this headline from the Washington Post: ‘Louisville rebounds from blowout with close loss at Marquette.’ Yes, the national perception of UofL basketball is that losing is considered a “rebound.” However, the NCAA tournament committee won’t look at moral victories as a reason to hand out an at-large bid to the Cardinals.
Let’s not forget that it was less than a month ago when college basketball fans were talking about UofL’s 12-0 record. Then Georgetown happened. Then Kentucky (ouch) happened. After a 73-58 victory over a struggling St. John’s team, Notre Dame came to the Yum! Center and left with a 67-65 double overtime win. That was followed by a terrible road loss to Providence and then, after an 18-2 run to start the game against Marquette, UofL fell 74-63 and to 2-4 in the Big East.
There’s no doubt injuries are playing a part in Cards’ recent slide. Eight players have missed time this season due to injury (including forward Rakeem Buckles, who is out the remainder of this season and maybe all of next season with an ACL injury). Still, a lot of the focus from the outside is squarely on head coach Rick Pitino. Coming into the Providence game, UofL had lost three of four games. The team came out playing completely uninspired and faded early.
In a news conference later that week, Pitino tore into Courier-Journal reporter C.L. Brown concerning an article about the perception of Pitino’s practices. Pitino claimed he never even read the article but was told about it by his Sports Information Director Kenny Klein. Pitino directed his very public ire to Brown, calling the article “erroneous” and “nonsense.” Unfortunately for Pitino, the backlash from the Cardinal fan base was directed toward the Coach, not the writer. That’s a rarity these days considering fans of almost every successful program are convinced the media is out to get their coach or their players. Pitino later apologized to Brown (coincidentally after the win over Depaul).
So why would the fans back the media (gasp!) over their own coach?
“’Pitino Mystique’ is very real. However, it’s worn off with this Louisville fan base,” according to Nick Coffey, who runs TheCardinalConnect.com and hosts a twice-weekly UofL radio show on 1450 The Sports Buzz.
Coffey says, “Louisville fans want to hang banners. Having a future Hall Of Fame coach is something that the fan base takes pride in, but they want to see results. They haven’t seen that in the past few seasons which has led to a lot of criticism for Coach Pitino.”
The results so far certainly don’t have the majority of fans expecting a banner in the Yum! Center this season. Now that we know where the Cardinals have been, the next question is where are they going? At this rate, it could be to the NIT. As if that wasn’t humiliation enough, there’s a chance UofL wouldn’t even be able to play NIT games at the Yum! Center because the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament are being held there. That would force the Cardinals to play at Freedom Hall. Remember when UK suffered the same indignation under Billy Gillispie? The Wildcats couldn’t play their NIT game in Rupp Arena because the Sweet 16 was there and UK was forced to play at Memorial Coliseum.
No one faulted Pitino for going to the NIT in his first season after taking over a team that won only 12 games the previous season under Denny Crum. However, in 2006, the Cards were back in the NIT…and this was a season following a Final Four appearance.
Pitino signed a four-year contract extension last August that runs through the 2016-2017 season. Pitino makes $3 million in base salary and $3.9 million per year after that. That’s a lot of money for a coach who has produced one Final Four appearance in 10 seasons and two first round NCAA losses over the past two years. Fans may not be calling for Pitino’s head, but they’re restless. Another below average season with an early exit from the NCAA tournament (or worse, an NIT bid) and the discussion about Pitino’s future may take a very different turn.
Photo Courtesy: UofLSports.com