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Pitino As a Number One Seed: Fret Not, Card Fans

USA TODAY Sports

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There was some considerable chatter among Louisville fans a couple weeks ago when the Cardinals were jockeying to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Some fans made it clear: they weren't crazy about the notion of inheriting a top seed. History shows Louisville won both of its NCAA titles as No. 2 seeds, and the last time the Cardinals were a No. 1 seed, they lost in the Elite Eight. Things got even scarier to omen watchers when Louisville was awarded the overall No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday, with a possible Michigan State-showdown looming in Indianapolis. As most Louisville fans already know, the Cardinals fell to Michigan State as the overall No. 1 seed four years ago in The Circle City.

Having been a fan of Rick Pitino since I started watching college basketball, and witnessing nearly every collegiate game he's coached in the past 21 years, I can say with all certainty: fret not, my fellow U of L fans. In his soon-to-be Hall of Fame career, Pitino is 21-4 as a No. 1 seed, having reached three Final Fours, two NCAA title games and winning one NCAA championship. The worst Pitino has ever finished as a No. 1 seed is the Elite Eight. I'm sure you don't have to Google very far to find a plethora of coaches who've been handed No. 1 seeds and been bounced much earlier in the Big Dance.

A myth that must be debunked regarding Pitino's incredible record as a No. 1 seed is that he attained such an astounding top seed-record at Kentucky with NBA rosters. Not so. In fact, such a notion is far from the truth. Looking back at Pitino's five NCAA tournament No. 1 seeds, you'll come to see that the Pitino has been composing his best teams the same way for the past 20 years and that his 2013 Cardinals are very similar in talent and structure to another one of Pitino's former No. 1 seeds – his 1996 national championship team.

No. 1 Seed: 1993 - Record: 4-1

Pitino's earned the first No. 1 seed of his career a year after the "Laettner Shot" and falling to Duke in the East regional finals. His 1993 Kentucky team had one significant future NBA player in its starting line-up, Jamal Mashburn. Pitino reached his second career Final Four in style, as his '93 squad annihilated every team in its path by an average of 31 points per game. I vividly recall watching Pitino take on Michigan's 'Fab Five' in the Final Four, and have no doubt Pitino's team would have prevailed had his starting two-guard and defensive stopper, Dale Brown, not injured his shoulder while diving for a loose ball with seven minutes remaining in regulation. Remember when Preston Knowles went down in 2011 versus Morehead State? The loss of Brown was equally as devastating for a Pitino-coached team. "A big factor" Pitino said after the game, regarding Brown's injury. "That definitely killed us," Kentucky forward Jared Prickett said following the overtime loss to the Wolverines.

Tally: Career No. 1 Seed Record: 4-1, One Final Four

No. 1 Seed: 1995 - Record: 3-1, Elite Eight

The second No. 1 seed of Pitino's career featured a team that sent zero players to the NBA after season's end. Its best player was junior guard Tony Delk (at that stage in his career, comparable to junior Russ Smith, probably ready for a leap to the next level, but likely better served by returning for his senior season). I've seen some bad calls in my 21-plus years of watching college basketball, but nothing compares to one single, atrocious decision made by the officiating crew in Birmingham, Alabama that evening.

Pitino's team was off to a hot start when the momentum of the game was broken irreparably midway though the first half after North Carolina's Rasheed Wallace elbowed Kentucky's Andre Riddick in the face. Riddick had the right to be agitated, but showed poor judgement in striking back with a choke-hold on Rasheed. Both players rightly received technical fouls, along with (inexplicably) Kentucky's Walter McCarty – who was in no way, shape or form part of the altercation.

To make the incident truly dumbfounding, the officials even reviewed replays of the skirmish on the monitors, and still handed McCarty a technical. It was a crushing blow to Pitino's squad. McCarty's technical foul he didn't commit became his third personal, and he was forced to sit for the remainder of the first half and much of the second half. While it wasn't pretty for Kentucky the rest of the evening, as Pitino's team conceded to playing a lot of un-Pitino-like one-on-one basketball, I'll always wonder what would have happened had the refs not dropped the ball and given McCarty that technical foul. To say it was a momentum-changer is an understatement. Up until the Rasheed elbow, Pitino's team was playing the the best basketball in the country, once again steamrolling each and every team in its path in the NCAA tournament. If there was a silver lining from the North Carolina loss in 1995, it was the lesson it instilled for the group that would return the following season and win a national championship, Pitino's first.

Tally: Career No. 1 Seed Record: 7-2, One Final Four, One Elite Eight

No. 1 Seed: 1996 - Record: 6-0, NCAA title

There's a couple of misconceptions about Pitino's 1996 NCAA championship team. First, it wasn't chock-full of NBA stars – quite the contrary. In actuality, it was composed of one future NBA All-Star, a few NBA journeymen, and a couple of guys who played very minimally in the NBA. Pitino's NCAA title team had three players drafted in the first round of the 1996 NBA Draft – Antoine Walker (No. 6), Tony Delk (No. 16) and Walter McCarty (No. 19). Walker would eventually become an All-Star and win a world championship with the Miami Heat, though he was never really a bonafide superstar (Walker was uber-talented coming out of high school, but raw, and somewhat of a clown act, considered un-coachable by some. Pitino turned him into a lottery pick). McCarty and Delk had productive, 10-year careers in the NBA, and the other NBA selection from that title team was senior Mark Pope, who was drafted No. 52 by the Indiana Pacers and eventually tallied a total of six scattered seasons in the NBA.

Another misconception about Pitino's 1996 title team is that it sent nine players to the NBA after season's end. As mentioned, four players were drafted in 1996, no more. The following season, Ron Mercer declared for the pros (and was drafted by Pitino as a Boston Celtic) and senior Derek Anderson was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Anderson had a productive, 10-year pro career and Mercer played seven seasons in the NBA. The only other real future NBA player from that squad was none other than Nazr Mohammed, who didn't actually play hardly at all for Pitino's championship squad – he played on its junior varsity team (yes, that team was so loaded Pitino had to create a jayvee team).

We all know Pitino's one of the best the game's ever seen when it comes to player development. If you want to sum up Pitino's mastery of student-athlete betterment in one two words, it's Nazr Mohammed.

One thing you might often read about Pitino’s 1996 title team that is complete truth: it is, without question, one of the greatest college basketball teams of all-time. For my money, it’s the greatest college basketball team ever assembled. But that discussion is for another day, another space. What’s mind-blowing for those of use who were around to see that team is the fact that today, Nazr Mohammed is still playing in the NBA, 17 years later, and has had the longest NBA or pro career of anyone on that 1996 roster. I first saw Nazr play for Pitino’s 1996 jayvee team in Cincinnati that season. He weighed well over 300 pounds, and bricked six dunks in one half of basketball. In the span of one calendar year, Pitino would have Mohammed slimmed, trimmed, toned and leading his program to another NCAA title game.

What’s noticeable to me are the similarities in talent and structure Pitino’s 1996 NCAA title team shares with his team this season. His national championship team was led by a smart floor leader, Anthony Epps (Peyton Siva), had a two guard that could score from anywhere, Tony Delk (Russ Smith), featured a 6-5 small forward who could slash and shoot, Derek Anderson (Wayne Blackshear), a talented sophomore at power forward, Antoine Walker (Chane Behanan) and a smart player manning the 5-spot, Walter McCarty (Gorgui Dieng). The bench was loaded, with sharp shooter Jeff Sheppard (Luke Hancock), slasher and shooter Ron Mercer (Kevin Ware) and big-man Mark Pope (Montrezl Harrell/Stephan Van Treese).

Tally: Career No. 1 Seed Record: 13-2, One Elite Eight, Two Final Fours, One NCAA title

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No. 1 Seed: 1997 - Record: 5-1, NCAA runner-up

The greatest single-season coaching job of Rick Pitino's brilliant career was 1996-97 and it's not even close. Pitino lost four starters to the NBA Draft, and returned one – senior Anthony Epps. I'm sure you don't have to fire up Wikipedia to know Epps never played a game in the NBA. One of Pitino's returning star guards heading into that season figured to be senior Jeff Sheppard, but in true Pitino-fashion, the coach didn't think Sheppard would be able to get the minutes a player of his caliber and seniority deserved with fellow senior guard Derek Anderson returning as well, so Pitino decided to redshirt him (which turned out magnificently for the Kentucky program – Sheppard would lead Tubby Smith to the coach's only career Final Four and and win a NCAA title the following season, as a fifth year senior).

So before the season ever begins, Pitino's already down one star player and senior for the most unselfish of reasons, with only the said player's best interests in mind. Check. He has one returning starter, a Kentucky-native who was a far-cry from ever being a McDonald's All-American. Got it. Then, in January of that season, Pitino's star guard, Derek Anderson, tears his ACL and is finished for the year. Despite the injury to Anderson, who's playing the best basketball in the country that season, despite everything, Pitino somehow manages to lead his team to another No. 1 seed, another Final Four and another title game, before falling in overtime to Arizona. To be clear, Pitino had two former McDonald's All-Americans on his team (sophomores Ron Mercer and Wayner Turner), but this was another team that was far from a cupboard full of future NBA players.

Tally: Career No. 1 Seed Record: 18-3, One Elite Eight, Three Final Fours, One NCAA title, One NCAA runner-up

No. 1 Seed: 2009 - Record: 3-1, Elite Eight

After four seasons in the NBA, Pitino returned to where he belonged – the college game, in the Commonwealth. When Pitino came to Louisville in 2001, he inherited a team coming off a 12-19 season. In his first season with the Cardinals, Pitino won 19 games and 25 the following year. In his fourth season at Louisville, he took the school to its first Final Four appearance in 19 years, his fifth as a head coach.

By 2008, Pitino really had things rolling again in the 'Ville. He led that season's team to the Elite Eight, and had it not been for a bunk placement of playing North Carolina in the regional final in the state of North Carolina, Pitino may very well have been on the way to his sixth Final Four (which would eventually come in 2012).

The 2009 Cardinals reached the Elite Eight before falling to Michigan State. While the Cards were the more talented team, losing to a No. 2 seed that is 29-6 on the season and coached by another NCAA tourney wizard in Tom Izzo isn't exactly something to be too miffed by.

Historically and statistically, the 2009 and 2013 Cardinals are similar. Both teams won Big East Conference titles, Big East Conference tournament championships, and both teams earned the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

There are a few key attributes the 2013 team possess that the 2009 squad lacked. If I had to pinpoint one area in particular, it would be defense. Oh sure, the '09 Cards were terrific defensively, often times awesome, simply because they played Rick Pitino basketball and were masters of the full-court press. But the 2013 version has something the '09 guys did not: Pitino had yet to invent his spell-binding, perplexing 2-3 man-to-man/hybrid zone. He had dabbled with the 2-3 zone for most of his college coaching career, but Pitino didn't unleash the Rubik's Cube of half-court defensive sets until the 2010-11 season.

The 2012-2013 Cards are the best defensive team in the 11 seasons Ken Pomeroy has been charting its efficiency. This team doesn't just lock you up defensively, they knock you out and throw away the key. And they're pretty good on the other end as well. The Cards were the highest scoring team in the Big East this season, and their average margin of victory is 15.6 points per game (versus 12.9 points per game for the 2009 Cards).

Tally: Overall Career No. 1 Seed Record: 21-4, Two Elite Eights, Three Final Fours, One NCAA title, One NCAA runner-up

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No. 1 Seed: 2013 – TBD...

Pitino enters the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 seed for the sixth time in his career. If you're a betting person or Digger Phelps, here's some advice: don't pick the Cards to lose before the Elite Eight. Pitino has never lost in the round of 64 or 32 as a top seed, and he is 10-0 in the Sweet 16 as any seed. His Cards have won 10 straight. It's a good time to be a Louisville fan.

Now for some perspective: UCLA has more NCAA titles than any other program in Division I history, but in the grand scheme of things, those banners haven't come easy or often. The Bruins have been playing basketball in Westwood for 86 seasons and own 11 NCAA titles, having claimed their most recent a mere 18 years ago. Louisville has put a team on the hardwood for nearly 100 years and won two NCAA titles, approximately a .002 national championship batting average.

Any fan of any program who puts all their value into winning national championships is going to be generally miserable. As a fan, all you can really ask for is an entertaining product and a 'shot' come March, something Pitino delivers more consistently than any other coach in the college game.

It's incredibly difficult to win a NCAA title – at any school. You have to be good, you have to be lucky, you gotta dodge some bullets. But as of March 21, 2013, you gotta love Louisville's chances. I certainly do.

And if you're still somewhat weary of a No. 1 seed and looking for an omen, remember this: the only other time one of his 28 collegiate teams was ranked No. 2 in the final AP poll of the season, Pitino won a national championship.

Go Cards.

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