It has not been the greatest of times for Louisville since the Cardinals defeated Syracuse to win the Big East Tournament last March.
The Cardinals played uninspired basketball in the NCAA Tournament despite being the top seed. They were eventually bounced by Michigan State in the Elite Eight. Standouts Earl Clark and Terrence Williams left for the NBA, coach Rick Pitino got involved in a sordid sex scandal over the summer and senior guard Jerry Smith and sophomore forward Terrence Jennings were arrested earlier this month for their role in a disturbance at an alumni homecoming party.
Yet Pitino insists that Louisville is ready to shake off all the bad news. Despite losing three starters from last season’s 31-6 team, the Cardinals are ranked 20th in The Associated Press’ pre-season poll.
"We have a great attitude as a team, maybe the best attitude I’ve ever seen from any of my teams," Pitino said. "These kids work extremely hard. When you put attitude and hard work together, it’s a great combination. Those two things were recognizable about our team right from the first day of practice. They’re all about basketball and getting better."
It remains to be seen whether Louisville can continue to be all about basketball.
Pitino admitted to having a sexual encounter with Karen Sypher in 2003 in a Louisville restaurant. Sypher claimed she was raped but police said her claims had no validity. Meanwhile, she has been charged her with trying to extort $8 million from Pitino and lying to the FBI. No trial date has been set.
Pitino is adamant that the situation has neither been a distraction nor will it become one.
"I think what everyone fails to realize is even in recruiting, it hasn't come up one time in one phone call," Pitino said. "Players and recruits are interested in is their future, making their lives better for their families someday, becoming the best players they can possibly be. Winning games is really what they're tuned into."
Meanwhile, Smith and Jennings both pleaded guilty to resisting law enforcement, received one-year suspended prison sentences and were ordered to complete 40 hours of community service. Pitino did not suspend either player but said both are suffering in-house punishment, on which he would not elaborate.
"Compared to what I put them through, they would much rather be suspended," Pitino said.
As far as on the court, Pitino has some rebuilding to do as Smith and sophomore center Samardo Samuels are the only returning starters. Smith was 85th in offensive rating last season with a 118.8 mark while averaging 7.8 points, 2.1 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 21.2 minutes a game. Considering he was USA Today’s National Prep Player of the Year in 2008, Samuels was a bit of disappointment as he finished at 11.8/4.9/0.9/25.1.
Pitino has high hopes for senior wing Reginald Delk, who could replace some of the production lost with the departures of Clark and Williams. Delk seldom played last season after transferring from Mississippi State and produced a line of 1.6/0.6/0.5/5.7.
"It was a tough year for Reggie because T-Will was as relentless a practice player as you will ever find and he beat up on Reggie every day," Pitino said. "I really believe competition makes you better and Reggie really learned from going against T-Will day in and day out. You’re going to see a much-improved Reggie Delk this season."
It would seem nearly impossible for Louisville to improve upon last season, even though the Big East is not quite the minefield it was a year ago.
"I think we’ve come back to the middle of the conference along with Pitt, Syracuse and UConn, but at the same time, Cincinnati, South Florida, St. John’s and Seton Hall are all moving toward the middle, too," Pitino said. "It’s going to be a very strong and balanced conference, to say the least. West Virginia and UConn are very strong but there are a lot of good teams.
"I always judge a basketball team by four criteria: talent, experience, defense and shooting ability. I think we have the talent, defense and shooting ability but I’ve only had a handful of teams who have overcome a lack of experience and experience is something we’re lacking."
Maryland Back on the Rise
There was talk early last February that Maryland coach Gary Williams might be on the hot seat. His Terrapins were 3-5 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and appeared poised to miss the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season and the fourth time in five years.
However, Maryland knocked off eventual national champion North Carolina late in the regular season and upset Wake Forest in the ACC tournament. That got the Terrapins into the NCAAs, where they beat California before falling to No. 2 seed Memphis in the second round.
Now Maryland is considered a team capable of making a dark-horse run at the ACC title this season.
"The players were told basically halfway through the year that they weren't any good because I was criticized for recruiting those specific players," Williams told the Baltimore Sun’s Jeff Barker. "So when those specific players were good enough to beat North Carolina, Wake Forest and California, I felt good for them because that kind of vindicated the fact that they were good basketball players."
Maryland, led by senior Greivis Vasquez at the point, will be a guard-oriented team. The Terrapins have high hopes for 6'9" freshman Jordan Williams to provide more size.
"What we can do this year, which we couldn't do last year, is put Jordan Williams into the game at 6'9", and then we're as big as anybody we play against," Gary Williams said. "What people overlook sometimes, though, is that if we played three guards, our three guards might be Vasquez at 6'6", Cliff Tucker at 6'4 1/2" and Sean Mosley, who is only about 6'3 1/2" but he's like 220. He'd be a tight end if he played football. People forget how big these guys are."
Gonzaga-Washington Series Unlikely to Return
Washington discontinued its in-state series with Gonzaga three years ago. Now, the Huskies want to start playing the Bulldogs again. The only problem is that Gonzaga does not want to renew the series on Washington’s terms.
Washington has proposed a three-year series beginning next season with each game being played at KeyArena in Seattle. The University of Washington is located in Seattle.
Gonzaga, though, would prefer the teams play a home-and-home series on campus sites. It would also be amenable to a home-and-home series in which the Bulldogs would host an equal number of games in its hometown at Spokane Arena as Washington would at KeyArena.
"I have always been of the opinion this is a good game for both schools," Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth said. "At the same time, it is a series that should be equitable for both schools. I have always believed it is a game best played on the two campuses because of the great college basketball atmosphere in both campus venues."
However, Washington doesn’t seem ready to budge off its stance.
"This is the proposal that we're interested in and I don't see it changing in terms of any other sites," said Richard Kilwien, UW's associate athletic director of athletic communications. "Having it at the Key really benefits both schools in terms of fans and financially as well.
Familiar Co-Favorites in the ACC
Duke and North Carolina finished tied for first in the ACC media pre-season poll, the first time there has been co-favorites in the poll’s 41-year history. The Blue Devils and Tar Heels were followed by Clemson, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Wake Forest, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Boston College, Miami, Virginia and North Carolina State.
Duke’s Kyle Singler was chosen as Preseason Player of the Year and was joined on the all-conference team by Vasquez, Clemson’s Trevor Booker, Virginia Tech’s Malcolm Delaney and North Carolina’s Ed Davis. Georgia Tech freshman Derrick Favors was tabbed as Rookie of the Year.
Michigan State was picked as the Big Ten favorite in that conference’s media poll and was followed by Purdue and Ohio State. The Big Ten only announces the top three teams. Meanwhile, Michigan State’s Kalin Lucas was picked to repeat as the Player of the Year and was joined on the pre-season all-conference team by Michigan’s Manny Harris, Ohio State’s Even Turner, Penn State’s Talor Battle and Purdue’s Robbie Hummel.
California was the pick of Pacific-10 Conference media and was followed by Washington, UCLA, Arizona, Oregon State, Oregon, Arizona State, Washington State, USC and Stanford. The Pac-10 does not have a pre-season all-conference team.
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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