What if Rick Pitino had decided to hang up his Gucci loafers after last year’s Championship? Undoubtedly we would’ve looked back at his twelve years here and reached the conclusion that 2013 was an outlier. Not because the other seasons ended without a Championship, and certainly not because all the other seasons were disappointments. With Rick at the helm the University of Louisville has won nearly three quarters of its games (a .74 win%). There have been five conference championships, five Elite Eights, three Final Fours, and a National Championship. Those numbers and accolades could only be viewed as less than successful by the most critical and unrealistic of fans. Heading into the 2013-14 season, many people, fans and "experts" alike, felt that Louisville had a legitimate opportunity to win that final game of the season again.
Be that as it may, there is a very good reason for why only two programs have won back-to-back titles since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 32 teams. Championship caliber basketball is a fragile thing. All the stars have to align for a team to win that final game of the season. You’ve got to have the right roster. That roster has to gel and learn to play together, which probably means that egos are set aside, and there are no major injuries. The "off the court issues" cannot be so great that they take away from a team’s focus and preparation throughout the year. Finally, somewhere along the line, you’ve got to be a little lucky. The reasons for why 2013 was so unique, in comparison to the other eleven years of the Pitino era, are the exact reasons why there is a third championship banner hanging in the YUM! Center right now.
The roster was stocked with future NBA draft picks, solid contributors off the bench, and plenty of tournament experience accumulated from the 2012 run to New Orleans. Those players cared more about winning a championship than they did about numbers or impressing NBA scouts. There was really only one injury that hindered the team’s progress, and Gorgui Dieng was back from his fractured wrist in plenty of time for the team to reach its full potential heading into March. There was virtually no hint of off the court drama. Finally, I defy anyone to say there was no magic involved in Tim Henderson’s back to back threes against Wichita State, or Luke Hancock’s morphing into Reggie Miller at the end of the first half against Michigan.
Any fan, of any big time college basketball program, will tell with the utmost confidence that their team was "this close" to cutting down the nets at least 3-4 times over the last twelve years. "If we had just landed that one recruit, to go along with that one team, we would have been unstoppable!" Or, "if that one guy had stuck around, or not been a knuckle head, we could’ve been a serious contender!" Louisville fans are no different. Think about it. If the Cards had been situated in any bracket other than freaking Greensboro in 2008, you are absolutely positive that we would have made it to the Final Four and had a shot. What if that premature celebrator Tom Crean hadn’t convinced Izzo to change his entire game plan the night before the Michigan State game in 2009? "Man, that team was rolling towards number three."
Look at this year. If Gorgui hadn’t been just a little too old to stick around for another year, we wouldn’t have to stick Mangok out there to learn on the fly. What if Zach Price had worked out and developed his game like Gorgui did? We would, at the very least, have a 6’11/ 260lb big man to protect the rim and rebound right now. What if Samardo Sammuels, the number one overall recruit in the country back in 2008, had actually possessed "one and done" talent? Rick might have a lot more cache when it comes to recruiting the super high level kids who are being told that they are one-and-done. Maybe we would have have landed a Joel Embiid or Noah Vonleh to replace Gorgui, both kids who Rick really went after because he knew we needed them. Both super talented freshmen who will hear their names called in this year’s NBA draft.
Like I said, it’s a fragile thing, and that holds true for every other team out there. But I’m not naïve either. There were plenty of reasons for doubt after the team failed to overcome a decided height advantage, for the second time this year, inside of Rupp Arena on 12/28. That was before Chane Behanan was dismissed from the team. Now, after last night’s loss to Memphis, there are even more reasons for doubt. That loss was a pretty big eye opener, in terms of how much further this team has to go in a very short amount of time. That doesn’t mean I’m counting them out. Not after what I’ve seen from Rick Pitino the last twelve years. There isn’t another coach in the country I’d rather have trying to figure this thing out.
What I know is that there are still plenty of players on this team who know how to win at the highest levels. I know that Luke is starting to come around, just like last year. I know that there is still a lot of talent on this team. I also know that even when the talent hasn’t been there at certain times over the last twelve years, Rick Pitino always (ALWAYS) has his teams playing their best basketball heading into March. With the right draw, and a little luck, maybe this team makes it to Dallas. At this point, I’d say doing that would be a major accomplishment. Championship caliber basketball is not something that comes along every year, but at this point, I’d settle for good basketball and a fun tournament run come March.