Hall of Fame caps off months of success for Rick Pitino, but coaching career will continue

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SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Rick Pitino sat at his table, championship ring on his finger, wearing a white polo with the Louisville Cardinals logo on the left side of his chest — new tattoo on the back of his left shoulder — and the most recent addition to his weekend wardrobe, a Hall of Fame blazer.

Pitino, one of 12 people enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend in Springfield, Mass., was the focal point of the room. To his left was Bernard King, the New York Knicks great that Pitino coached as part of Hubie Brown’s staff in the ’80s. Even though King had his own crowd of reporters sitting across from him, he didn’t acknowledge them for the first several minutes. He had his head turned towards Pitino, looking like a spectator. Pitino was completely aware he had King’s attention, and didn’t hesitate to compliment the pure scorer.

“He earned his way into the Hall of Fame, my players got me into the Hall of Fame,” Pitino told reporters.

Pitino was the first coach to take three different programs to the Final Four, he has won two national titles and amassed more than 650 career wins, despite spending six years, in two separate stints in the NBA. His place in the Hall of Fame is well deserved, but it’s the timing  that makes this experience all the more unique.

It all started on Valentine’s Day. The Cardinals coming off a five-overtime loss to Notre Dame in South Bend, defeated St. John’s 72-58, starting a 16-game winning streak that ended with the national championship. That Final Four weekend, Pitino got word he’d be a member of the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2013. A day before Louisville’s Final Four matchup with Wichita State, Pitino’s son Richard was introduced as Minnesota’s new head coach.

His hot streak wasn’t limited to the hardwood either. He had a horse run in the Kentucky Derby, he caught an 80-pound marlin and was featured on commemorative Maker’s Mark bottles … and that all happened during a one-week span in May.

Months of accomplishments have blended together, and it has reached its pinnacle this weekend in Western Massachusetts.

“I think that’s what makes it such a special, special thing,” Pitino said. “You’re on such a high with the championship, then you’re on another here, so it segues into it like nothing I’ll ever forget. It’s an incredible, incredible feeling, for all of this to happen in a short amount of time.”

Following his speech at Springfield’s Symphony Hall on Sunday, it’s time to switch gears. He’s still an active coach after all.

“I think that for these three days, you basically, cherish the past by remembering it,” Pitino said. “But I think when this ends, you immediately get ready, and you start thinking about recruiting, and it moves forward.”

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There have been other coaches before Pitino that have continued their careers as members of the Hall of Fame, yet Pitino hasn’t sought any advice for what he should expect coaching with his new title. However, Pitino insists, he intends to coach as a Hall of Famer for a while.

“I think where most coaches realize it’s their time is when they just get tired of recruiting,” he said. “That’s what people tell me. They get tired. The good thing is I’m nowhere near tired, as a matter of fact I’m even more passionate about recruiting right now than I’ve ever been because you have a brand that’s very easy to sell.”

And he clearly means it. As Pitino, 60, was preparing for the Hall of Fame weekend, he landed a commitment from four-star power forward Jaylen Johnson on Friday morning.

Louisville is a historic program. Couple that with winning the NCAA tournament, and it’s not hard to catch the eye of blue-chip prospects. Pitino compared recruiting after winning a championship to selling Louis Vuitton hand bags or Gucci shoes. He has a popular product that people like — depending on where you live in the state of Kentucky.

And that product displayed different styles of itself throughout the season. Louisville were known for its intense defense throughout the year, though in the national final, the Cards were in a first-half shootout against Michigan.

“The amazing thing about it,” Pitino said. “We went the entire season with the best defense in the country, and we ended up winning the NCAA tournament with the best offense.”

Pitino’s team gained positive attention for how they handled and bounced back from Kevin Ware’s gruesome leg injury during the Elite Eight against Duke. It showed the team’s chemistry — which was there all along — but it was brought to the forefront by the live video and then the  hours of tweets and posts that followed.

“Chemistry doesn’t happen by a young man getting hurt,” Pitino insisted.

That chemistry was part of what made this past season such a memorable one. He has a core of those players returning, who share that bond, but Pitino mentioned that he’ll never another player like Peyton Siva — just like he’ll probably never have one as entertaining as returning guard Russ Smith, who consistently wakes Pitino up at 1:30 in the morning with text messages that read simply, “What’s up, coach?” He’ll almost certainly will never get a pair of threes in the Final Four from a player like Tim Henderson, who averaged less than four minutes a game. And the list goes on, and on. But with the returnees and impressive recruiting classes coming in, Pitino has more to look forward to, rather than reminisce on his accomplishments that will forever be stored in Springfield.

Though success might eventually be too much of a good thing for Pitino.

“We’ve been to back-to-back Final Fours. If we go to one more, the way my friends at Louisville celebrate, I will be dead,” Pitino joked.

The march to another Final Four begins after Pitino’s speech on Sunday afternoon. It’s fitting that he concludes the 2013 Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony. It’s puts an end to a stream of achievements he’s seen in recent months, as the Hall of Fame coach gets set for another season on the sidelines at Louisville looking to add more accolades to his Hall of Fame resume.

DiVincenzo to test NBA draft waters

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The Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player is testing the water to see if the NBA will let him have next.

Villanova announced on Thursday that Donte DiVincenzo, who scored a career-high 31 points in the national title game two weeks ago, will declare for the draft but will not hire an agent so as to preserve his collegiate eligibility.

“Donte has consistently improved in his time at Villanova through dedication and a commitment to our core values,” stated Wildcats head coach Jay Wright. “His play this season has created a unique opportunity for him to receive feedback from NBA teams in the draft process. We support Donte fully and our staff will work together with him and his family to help him assess the next step in his basketball career.”

At this point, every relevant Villanova player has announced what their intention is for the NBA draft. Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges are heading to the NBA. Phil Booth and Eric Paschall are returning to school, and barring a shock decision to transfer or to declare for the draft, both Collin Gillispie and Jermaine Samuels will be as well.

That leaves Divincenzo and Omari Spellman, both of whom have declared for the draft without signing with an agent.

What those two decide to do could end up determining who college basketball’s best is next season, and there is no easy answer here for either of them.

We’ve been over this with Spellman already. At 6-foot-9, Spellman is already an elite shooter for someone his size. He’s also down to a svelte 245 pounds, which has turned him into a much more impressive athlete than he was when he first arrived on the Main Line. He’s more explosive. He’s a better shot-blocker and rebounder. He’s much better at attacking closeouts. As it stands, he’s got a shot to be a late first round pick should he remain in the draft.

The same can be said for DiVincenzo, a 6-foot-5 off-guard that is a streaky scorer with range and athleticism that can operate in ball-screens actions. He’s coming off one of the most impressive performances that we’ve seen in a national title game ever, which means that the memory that everyone is going to have of DiVincenzo is of him raining threes, blocking players at the rim and winking into the crowd.

But that’s not what NBA scouts are going to necessarily remember of him.

Villanova might not have been appointment viewing for people that wanted to see the next crop of superstars play, but they were on every NBA team’s list of teams that they needed to see. That’s what happens when there are five potential pros on the roster, including a top ten pick in Bridges and the National Player of the Year in Brunson.

Put another way, NBA personnel are very, very familiar with DiVincenzo. They know that he is a streaky scorer that can go off for 20 points in a half or 30 points in a game. They know that he is a plus athlete that can guard different positions despite the fact that his wingspan is all that massive. They also know he is a guy who doesn’t always make great decisions and can really struggle when he has to handle the ball against pressure.

Like Spellman, DiVincenzo is a borderline first round pick that is more likely to end up being snatched up in the early-to-mid second round if they remain in the draft.

The question they need to ask themselves is whether or not they feel that where they get selection could be drastically altered by returning to school, and I do think there is some reason to believe that to be the case. For starters, there are places where both players can improve to become more highly-regarded prospects, but I think what would be more relevant is that, if they both do return, we could be looking at a situation where both are preseason all-americans for a preseason top three team.

Hell, I don’t think it’s out of the question that DiVincenzo will be a Preseason National Player of the Year candidate, Spellman a preseason first-team all-american and Villanova the preseason No. 1 team in the country.

And if that is the case, one would assume that DiVincenzo — like Bridges and Josh Hart before him — could put together the kind of season that would see him shoot up draft boards. The same with Spellman.

But what’s more relevant for this space is that with both of those players in the fold, Villanova would once again be a national title contender and the overwhelming favorite to win a down-Big East conference.

Without them?

Villanova will be looking at having a rotation that includes three sophomores and three freshmen, which is not close to the ideal for Jay Wright. They’ll still be good, but we won’t be talking about them as a team that can win a title, at least not at the start of the season.

There is no hyperbole when I say that what DiVincenzo and Spellman decide to do will drastically alter the landscape of college basketball for the 2018-19 season.

Paschall, Booth to return for senior seasons with Villanova

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Villanova announced on Thursday morning that both Phil Booth and Eric Paschall will be returning for their senior seasons with the Wildcats.

“Phil and Eric are two of the cornerstone leaders of our team,” said Villanova head coach Jay Wright. “Each of them is widely respected by their teammates, not just for their talent, but for the kind of young men they are. We are thrilled that they will help lead our team again as seniors.”

Booth, a 6-foot-3 guard, is a redshirt senior from Maryland that averaged 10 points and 3.2 boards this past season despite dealing with a broken bone in his shooting hand that held him out of the lineup for seven games during Big East play. Paschall is a 6-foot-6 wing that started 38 games and averaged 10.6 points and 5.3 boards this past season, his second with Villanova after transferring into the program from Fordham.

There was some question that Paschall could end up declaring for the NBA draft. He is a redshirt junior and, given his athleticism, defensive versatility and ability to knock down threes, he would be an intriguing second round prospect and a potential role player at the NBA level. His return is big, because he is the piece that allows Villanova to be able to switch 1-through-4 without much worry, and he’ll allow sophomore Jermaine Samuels and incoming freshman Cole Swider to have another year before they are relied upon as heavily as they would be without him.

As good as Booth is at the college level, he’s not likely to end up being an NBA player. The concern is that, like Mikal Bridges and Paschall, is he was a senior from an education perspective, meaning that he could have earned his degree and moved on to the professional ranks. He will be an important veteran presence on the floor, and the kind of program piece that will help bridge the gap between last season’s title-winning team and the next crop of youngsters on the roster.

Arizona lands Pitt transfer forward Ryan Luther

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Arizona landed a key addition for its frontcourt on Wednesday as Pitt transfer forward Ryan Luther pledged to the Wildcats.

The 6-foot-9 Luther is expected to receive a hardship waiver that would give him immediate eligibility, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com, as Arizona gets some much-needed help up front.

Playing in 10 games last season before a stress reaction in his right foot ended the season, Luther averaged 12.7 points and 10.1 rebounds per game for the Panthers. In his final game of the season, Luther went for 13 points and 12 rebounds in a Pitt loss to West Virginia. Luther shot 45 percent from the field and is a noted perimeter threat as he was 38 percent from behind the three-point line.

Luther hasn’t logged heavy minutes as a contributor through a full season. Mostly a role player at Pitt until last season, Luther was the team’s most productive player when he was on the floor. But that production also didn’t come during ACC play and through the course of a full season.

Thankfully at a program like Arizona, Luther should have a bit more help around him. He could be a nice addition to the Wildcats, particularly if he rebounds and spaces the floor in the frontcourt as he did at Pitt. Arizona needed someone like Luther to provide more stability after losing players like Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic.

In the last few weeks, Arizona has rebounded nicely to land three commitments for next season — including freshmen Devonaire Doutrive and Omar Thielemans. The group isn’t as heralded as some past Arizona recruiting efforts. Given where the Wildcats were in recruiting a few weeks ago, however, this isn’t a bad turnaround.

TCU extends Jamie Dixon’s contract by two more years

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TCU has given head coach Jamie Dixon a two-year contract extension through the 2023-24 season, according to a release from the school.

Dixon took the Horned Frogs to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 20 years this season as he’s done a great job of turning around his alma mater. The release also notes that TCU had the highest average attendance in program history this season. Fans are also taking notice of a revitalized team.

With back-to-back 20-win seasons and postseason appearances, Dixon and TCU have a lot of positive momentum going on right now. The two-year extension for Dixon should help a bit in recruiting when it comes to overall stability, as well, as he’s been able to attract some quality talent so far.

Report: Kevin Ollie claims UConn violated rights with firing

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Fired former UConn head coach Kevin Ollie is claiming that the school violated his constitutional rights during his departure.

Ollie sent a letter to UConn school president Susan Herbst which was obtained by ESPN’s Myron Medcalf in a report released on Wednesday. Ollie’s lawyers are claiming the school proceeded with his firing before giving Ollie a proper chance to contest his termination — which was guaranteed in his contract and also the collective bargaining agreement with the University of Connecticut’s branch of the American Association of University Professors. Ollie was fired, with cause, in late March as the school mentioned an NCAA inquiry as the reason why. According to Medcalf’s report, the NCAA has not sent a notice of allegations to the school.

Ollie’s union membership includes thousands of faculty members around the country as the collective bargaining agreement demands a hearing process before any employee can be terminated for allegations of serious misconduct. Ollie claims he didn’t receive a letter he was supposed to get to begin the termination process.

“From our review of the facts and circumstances relating to Coach Ollie’s employment status, it is apparent that the University of Connecticut has already violated [Coach Ollie’s] rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution by subverting Coach Ollie’s opportunity to respond to charges and evidence in a meaningful way in advance of the decision to terminate his employment,” said the letter dated April 3.

“The public record, action taken, and authorized communications by representatives of the University of Connecticut, demonstrate that the decision to terminate Coach Ollie has already been made and therefore the University of Connecticut has effectively negated Coach Ollie’s property right protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

This letter to UConn likely begins a long legal battle to try to get an eight-figure payout back as Ollie is going to do everything he can to clear his name.