Louisville’s had a busy offseason (though Maryland might scoff at that remark). Assistants left for other programs, a starter left for the NBA and coach Rick Pitino won’t be going abroad to coach.
What’s all that mean?
Q: Let’s recap: Two assistants took other jobs, Terrence Jennings stayed in the NBA draft and Rick Pitino didn’t get the Puerto Rico job. Busy few weeks. But I’m sure it’s preferable to the offseason news from the last two summers.
A: Yeah, going into “woe is me” mode almost feels forced at this point, but as far as occurrences which will actually have a direct impact on what takes place on the court, I’m not sure we (Louisville fans) have gone through a more tumultuous offseason. And it hasn’t even been two months since “last year” actually ended.
A couple of weeks after the season-ending loss to Morehead State, I got word from a current player that Jennings was “most likely” going to be leaving. The player said Jennings was fully aware that making an NBA roster was a long-shot, and that he was content with a professional career in Europe. I figured this may have been somewhat of a knee-jerk reaction, but it appears the additional time had no effect on TJ’s perspective.
It’s easy to chastise Jennings’ decision as foolish or reckless, but a closer inspection reveals that it might well be the best play for him personally. Freshman Gorgui Dieng actually stole the starting center spot from Jennings relatively early on in the season, and held onto it before getting hurt about midway through conference play. More than any other player on last year’s roster, Jennings seemed to take being substituted out of the game extremely personally. Whenever he made anything that could potentially be viewed as a mistake, his next move was always a glance to the bench. It’s not a coincidence that his best games as a Louisville Cardinal came during the period where Dieng was in street clothes. A situation where he would be competing for minutes with a sophomore Dieng, freshman Zach Price, and (potentially) Wake Forest transfer Tony Woods surely weighed heavily on Jennings’ decision.
I think the other big factor behind Jennings’ leap was seeing what happened to Samardo Samuels last year. Samuels’ decision to sign with an agent was almost universally panned, then he went undrafted, but then he caught on with the Cleveland Cavaliers and ranked among the NBA’s top 10 rookie scorers for the bulk of the season. Jennings’ stats were unlikely to improve dramatically next season and this year’s draft class figures to be extremely less formidable than next year’s, so it stands to reason that this might be the best chance he has at getting a decent look from an NBA franchise.
The other key event of the offseason thus far was the departure of assistant coach Tim Fuller, who bolted for Missouri and the open arms of pal Frank Haith after just one season in town. Fuller is a big Nike guy and was instrumental in the bulk of the big-name recruits who pledged their allegiance to U of L over the past 12 months. Since his departure, elite commits Negus Webster-Chan and Rodney Purvis have both re-opened their recruitment, and controversial Wake Forest transfer Tony Woods has said that he’s re-exploring his options.
The unrest on the staff was the reason given by Webster-Chan – who was not recruited by Fuller – and that’s fairly easy to understand. In a short span of time, Fuller bounced, Steve Masiello took the head-coaching job at Manhattan, and Mark Lieberman – who did recruit Webster-Chan – moved from assistant coach to director of basketball operations. Everyone’s hoping for some recruiting life to be breathed back into the program now that the staff of Richard Pitino, Wyking Jones, and Kevin Keatts has been set in place.
As far as the Pitino to Puerto Rico deal is concerned, the pair pretty much parted ways when the NCAA ruled that Pitino couldn’t bring Louisville players down to the island nation with him to scrimmage against the national team. When that determination was made it caused multiple scheduling conflicts for Pitino, who told the federation he couldn’t be committed 100% to the team, and that was essentially that.
Q: Will the Cards miss Jennings other than having him for frontcourt depth?
A: He’ll definitely be missed, but the extent of the longing will depend largely on the offseason development of Dieng and what happens with Woods.
Dieng showed flashes of absolute brilliance as a freshman, and Pitino even said and one point that Gorgui can end up being as good as he wants to be. For whatever reason, though, big men haven’t made great strides from one season to the next during the Pitino era. That could be an issue as Dieng, who is originally from Senegal, still looked undeniably raw at times last year. The good news for U of L fans is that one of Gorgui’s biggest strengths is his willingness to rebound, an area where Jennings consistently struggled.
The big question mark right now is Woods, the former blue chip recruit from Wake Forest who was dismissed from school after pleading guilty to assaulting the mother of his child. Woods claimed in the days following Fuller’s exodus that he was “re-exploring his options,” and we haven’t heard a whole lot out from him since. If he does join the team for the spring semester as expected, he’ll almost certainly have an immediate impact as Price, a top-100 recruit from Louisville Jeffersontown High School, is talented but unlikely to come in and contribute immediately.
Q: How high are your expectations for the backcourt next season? Peyton Siva, Chris Smith, Kyle Kuric and Wayne Blackshear? Not bad.
A: Very high. Siva had a terrific sophomore season, but the exciting thing is that he still hasn’t come close to hitting his ceiling. He had planned on spending some time working out with Chris Paul this summer (thanks to the Tim Fuller connection), but he’ll now reportedly be spending that time with the Nuggets’ J.R. Smith.
J.R.’s little brother, Chris, was perhaps the biggest surprise on the team last year. He led the Big East in three-point shooting for much of the season, and finished the year averaging a hair under 10.0 ppg, something nobody expected from the Manhattan transfer. I think the case can be made that he’s the most valuable walk-on in college basketball.
Kuric, whose dunk over Notre Dame’s Scott Martin was named the best of the year by CBS, looked like a first team All-Big East player during the last six weeks of the season. It took until late in his junior season, but the coaching staff finally got him to become more than just a perimeter player, which is a huge step in his development since his athleticism is off-the-charts.
We knew for certain that Blackshear was meant to be a Cardinal when he started coming down with minor injuries throughout his senior season of high school ball in Chicago. If he can stay healthy, though, Blackshear may have more of an impact than any Louisville freshman has during the Pitino era. The kid is a pure scorer, which is something the Cardinals have lacked the past couple of seasons.
The only question mark in the backcourt is who runs the show when Siva’s on the bench. Pitino turned to senior two-guard Preston Knowles more and more at the point near the end of last season because he felt freshmen Elisha Justice and Russ Smith couldn’t be trusted. One of those two will need to step up significantly between now and the start of the season to earn the title of reliable backup.
Q: Pitino talked a little bit about retiring after the Morehead State loss. I chalk that up to a tough loss, but it is a question that’ll come up more often, right? How much longer do you see him in Louisville given he’s been there as long as he was at Kentucky and Providence combined.
A: He’s talked about it after each of the past few seasons, which has left a lot of us wondering why. Pitino has to know that talking about not wanting to coach anymore can only have a negative effect in terms of recruiting and national perception, so it’s beyond me why he continues to go there during national interviews.
I think the consensus among most Louisville fans is that he’s sort of been looking at the next handful of seasons as his last shot at a second national title. If it comes this year, next year, or in three years, then I think he’s done immediately after. It might actually only take a Final Four for him to hang it up. By all indications, Pitino seems perturbed by the new world of recruiting and the modern game, so if he doesn’t taste major success over the next two or three seasons I’d still be surprised if he hung around here any longer.
In hindsight, the expectations Louisville folks had for Pitino when he came here 10 years ago were unrealistic. We expected him to do exactly what he did at Kentucky, and because that hasn’t happened yet, some deem the Pitino era as it stands to be a disappointment. But people forget that this was a program near its lowest point and heading even further south when Pitino took over.
U of L won 12 games in Denny Crum’s final season, and Pitino inherited a roster that would have struggled to win the MEAC. If AD Tom Jurich had made the wrong hire in that situation (it was widely rumored that Jurich’s second choice was Larry Eustachy), there’s a decent chance that we’re DePaul right now, or have at least gone through a DePaul-esque period between then and now. In that light, a Final Four and a pair of Elite Eights over a decade doesn’t look too bad. Pitino’s earned the right to choose when to hang it up, however near or far that time may be.
Q: I can only imagine how much the Kentucky fans would’ve loved the idea of Eustachy. When Pitino does retire, do you the idea of a coach in waiting, or would prefer a big name coming in – knowing that Louisville could face the same issue Maryland just did. Louisville’s a great job but could it pry away any coach out there?
A: When the whole “Richard Pitino as coach in waiting” rumor broke out, I had a source close to Jurich tell me that “we’ll never have a coach in waiting,” and I think that’s accurate. While I don’t think Jurich will be able to get whoever he wants, I do think that the Louisville job is one of the most elite in the game. In an era where the turnover rate for coaches is higher than it’s ever been, U of L has had exactly two head coaches in 40 years, and both of them are hall-of-famers.
While I’m not naive enough to think that Coach K would leave Duke or Roy Williams would leave UNC, or even that a guy like Jay Wright would leave Villanova, I do think the Louisville job still holds a certain prestige and that a big name will be brought in whenever Pitino decides to call it a career here.
Q: Has the KFC Yum! Center landed a nickname yet? And how much do people love that place? It looks impressive.
A: Please don’t use the exclamation point. It haunts and taunts (rhyme) all of us.
I think most people are still just calling it “The Yum.” Sorry. We use all our creativity on Derby-related endeavors. Rivals like to call it “The Chicken Shack” or other variations, but all the attempts so far have been just as lame as the name itself.
There’s no doubt that the Yum Center is among the nicest in all of college basketball. As Pitino likes to say: we have a college team playing in an NBA arena. Still, it definitely took some getting used to for a lot of the folks, especially the ones with seats in the upper level where the view isn’t nearly as good as it was inside Freedom Hall.
Freedom Hall was the cute girl with the great family who made being in a serious relationship unbelievably easy. The Yum Center is unfathomably hot and your friends are all very impressed, but she shops a bit too much and you have the sneaking suspicion that being married to her might not be as sexy as it appears to the outside world. Still, the benefits of the relationship are pretty self-explanatory.
I think the biggest factor in getting people to accept The Yum relatively quickly was the amount of success the team had their in its first season. Louisville was undefeated at home in Big East play, and Cards fans were treated to some absolute classics (Marquette comeback) in the arena’s first year.
Q: Favorite Cardinal of the Pitino era?
A: Preston Knowles. You just don’t see stories anymore like his in big-time college basketball.
Knowles is a Kentucky kid who was a two-star recruit with one other college offer (VCU) coming out of high school. Then that May he gets a chance to play in a pick-up game with some current Louisville players who report to Pitino that this kid might be worth a scholarship. He earns playing time almost immediately because of the insane effort he gives on the defensive end and becomes a fan favorite. And then he ends his college career as the leading scorer and undisputed captain of a Louisville team which spent a large chunk of the season ranked in the top 15 nationally.
Q: How’d you get into blogging and how much longer do you anticipate doing this? And randomly, a lot of bloggers I’ve met are lawyers. Is there something to that?
A: I got into blogging about five years ago because I was bored and was preparing myself for some form of a writing career. Then I got out of college and realized quickly that no one is willing to pay you for written words anymore unless those words are telling a tale of vampire romance. I plan on continuing to do this as long as people are reading…and then probably a little while longer after that.
As far as lawyers who blog, my guess is the numbers are so high because they tell you that your only other free-time alternatives are alcoholism and suicide. Seriously kids, if you want to go to law school, brace yourself for hours upon hours of suicide, depression, and alcoholism discussions. Legally Blonde is incredibly misleading.
You can follow Mike Miller on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.