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ACC Preview #6 - Louisville

The Cardinals have some challenges, but they also have some nice talent and Rick Pitino, who can drive a team as well as any coach anywhere, anytime.

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Duke v Louisville
LOUISVILLE, KY - FEBRUARY 20: Grayson Allen #3 of the Duke Blue Devils and Jaylen Johnson #10 of the Louisville Cardinals battle for a loose ball during the game at KFC YUM! Center on February 20, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Last year must have been dreadful for Rick Pitino.

When he as an assistant and briefly an interim head coach at Hawaii, Pitino was accused of NCAA violations. Specifically, according to, Pitino committed “violations involving Pitino included providing round-trip air fare for a player between New York and Honolulu, arranging for student-athletes to receive used cars for season tickets, and handing out coupons to players for free food at McDonald's.”

The first two far as the NCAA goes, those are violations (in the rest of the world it’s probably good business practice). But McDonald coupons? Geez (Pitino has had bad luck with restaurants, come to think of it).

None of this compares to the tsunami that broke over his program last year when a prostitute accused the program of having her entertain visiting recruits.

The prostitute, Katina Powell, who brought her own daughters into the business, wrote a book called “Breaking Cardinal Rules: Basketball and the Escort Queen.”

As a result, Louisville banned its basketball team from the NCAA tournament, something Pitino accepted but was clearly not happy about.

Louisville also reduced recruiting days by 30 in 2016 and docked itself one scholarship in 2017-18 and 2018-19 and reduced official visits by one for last year and this coming year.

Pitino swore up and down that he didn’t know anything about it while Powell swore that he did.

Pitino is a brilliant coach and we’ve always enjoyed his teams, specifically because they’re capable of electrifying comebacks. We’ve always found him a bit oily and unctuous though. The man has a definite Eddie Haskell streak.

In spite of that, we believed him for a few reasons.

First, in light of his more recent scandal, the one that started with an after hours tryst in a restaurant and finished with Pitino testifying in an extortion trial, we can’t imagine that he’d be stupid enough to tempt fate with more sexual troubles. And second, and this is just a guess on our part, but one of the dorms the players live in and where some of the sexual encounters took place, is named for his late brother-in-law Billy Minardi, who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Yes Pitino is a slippery character, but by all accounts he loved Minardi dearly. A scandal in the dorm named for him just seems so jarring.

Third, he lost a job partly over McDonald’s coupons. He would clearly have understood that a major sex scandal - a second one actually - would have really put his career on the line. And finally, since when did college recruits have to pay for sex? Or more specifically when did coaches have to pay to get recruits laid?

As former Fab Five star Jalen Rose hilariously said, he didn’t bother with a recruiting visit where sex wasn’t an option: “As a 17-year-old kid, first off, if I'm not getting laid, I'm not coming. I'm not signing. I'm not coming."

And with athletes as the alpha males on campus pretty much everywhere, with potential partners available anytime, why would anyone pay a prostitute?

One possible answer: former assistant coach Andre McGee, who played for Pitino and presumably had the same level of sexual access as most college athletes, just isn’t too bright.

The one thing we never understood though is who paid the bill. We saw a figure of $10,000 bandied about and that’s real money, even given the salaries now paid to basketball coaches. Our guess is that a booster, probably without Pitino’s knowledge, gave McGee cash for Powell’s services.

At any rate, it rocked Louisville but good. After the theories that some nefarious Indiana booster tried to set the program up, and after a brief period where it seemed as if Pitino might be gone, things settled down.

Well sort of anyway. In July, the governor tried to replace the entire board of trustees and Louisville president James Ramsey resigned under pressure. This happened over two days.

We don’t fully understand that whole business - surely politics is involved - but no matter how you slice it, Pitino had a dreadful year. Any new board or president will have to deal with him obviously and Ramsey was pretty firmly in Pitino’s corner.

It is a new year though and a fairly promising one at that.

Unless the NCAA intervenes, Louisville will be tournament eligible and Pitino has a talented if young group.

Quentin Snyder, a 6-2 junior, will be the leader. He averaged nearly 10 ppg last season and 3.5 apg. He’s a solid player and his coaches trust him.

Sophomore Donovan Mitchell will likely start as well. He’s immensely gifted - check this out - and should be ready to move up.

Everyone was excited about 6-7 Deng Adel but he was slowed by injury. He should be much, much better as a sophomore.

Freshman VJ King, 6-6, should fit right in. He’s pretty athletic and should be a factor on both ends of the court.

That’s a pretty good athletic core to build around. Pitino also has a bunch of big men, but none of them have done that much.

Raymond Spalding did shoot 56%, but he only managed 5.6 ppg. He’s 6-10 and just 215.

That’s what Anas Mahmoud, the 7-0 Egyptian center weighs as well. At one point he was the butt of a Pitino joke about his lack of talented big men.

Mangok Mathiang, a 6-10 kid who grew up in Australia is another example of a fascinating trend: Sudanese refugees who develop into good ball players. Someone should really do a major piece on that (he and Adel are both from Sudanese families).

Jaylen Johnson is a 6-9 junior who is a bit thicker than the other bigs. Like most of them, he got around 17 minutes a game last year (Mahmoud ruins the curve at about 13.7). He’s had some conditioning problems but reportedly he’s whipped himself into great shape. If so, he’s likely to be the starter.

Last year, Pitino had Chinanu Onuaku at center. He was up and down but clearly talented and is now playing for the Houston Rockets.

The biggest questions about Louisville will be at center. Pitino has no problem running a short team - he just runs them faster than your guys and never takes his foot off the gas.

But at some point you need some interior defense and some rebounding inside, not to mention a cleanup man.

He may or may not have that this year. But you can be sure that Louisville will press and run and if you show the slightest bit of fatigue, you’re dead.

Pitino does have a bit of Eddie Haskell in him, but he’s also got a strong streak of George S. Patton.

Not the mercurial, half-crazed caricature we get of him - that was only part of Patton. The more important part was a guy who was intensely competitive and who pushed his troops beyond what most commanders believed possible. The guy who sprinted across France in record time and who made an astonishing pivot to relieve the Americans who held Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.

Comparisons between sports and the military are always sort of pointless, given the trivial stakes in sports compared to those in battle, but what people are usually talking about is leadership. And clearly, in a stressful situation, Pitino has proven to be a brilliant leader.

So expect Louisville to be in incredible shape and that even if they don’t find a perfect solution at center, they’ll never stop coming at you.

Barring anything weird, this is clearly a tournament team.