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Rick Pitino says it's "highly likely" he will return to Louisville

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Ian O'Connor of ESPN has a lengthy and informative story on ESPN this morning asking (as the headline reads) if these are the final days for Rick Pitino at Louisville.

According to O'Connor, Pitino didn't deny rumors that he'd started discussing plans to step down at Louisville back in the fall or the belief that those plans changed when the Cardinals were unexpectedly hit with a self-imposed postseason ban on Feb. 5.

What he does do is give an explanation of why he might have been feeling a certain way while all this was going down.

Instead, Pitino offered up an explanation for what his confidants were reporting. He said he'd told them of a conversation he had with a cancer-stricken Jim Valvano, who had advised him to never let an investigation of his program impact his health.

"Jimmy said that NCAA investigation [at NC State] broke down his immune system," Pitino recalled. "I told people that I was so saddened by what happened here, that I wasn't sleeping, that it had taken a big toll on me. ... But I said, 'I'm not going to let this thing get me sick,' and it hasn't gotten me sick.

"This team rejuvenated me in a great way, because I have awesome guys who are playing for nothing still giving me incredible effort each night. I'll step away from the game after the season and say, 'Are you having fun?' I'll look at it and do some thinking and then let the chips fall where they may."

How likely is it that the chips will fall in a way that persuades Pitino to end his 15-year run at Louisville?

"I think anything's possible," Pitino said. "I doubt it. I don't think it's probable. I just was blindsided, disgusted and saddened by this whole thing. ... I thought we'd be playing for the national title and going to the Final Four this year, and it was a shock that it was taken away.

"I'll ask myself after the season if Louisville is a better place with Rick Pitino as coach, and if the answer is yes, I'll do what I've done for 15 years and come back and fight for a championship, and that's what I plan on doing. But if the time comes that I feel Louisville is better off without me, I'm without ego now. I'd recommend this job to everybody. The town is great, the AD is off-the-charts fantastic and loyal, and I have a super team coming back. But if I think Louisville will be better off without me, anything's possible."

The piece goes on to speculate more about Pitino's future and includes some quotes from Jim Boeheim saying he doesn't think Rick is done coaching or that he would leave Louisville, but never gets a definitive word from Pitino himself.

The closest we come to getting that is in this follow-up piece from WDRB's Eric Crawford, where Pitino says that it's "highly likely" that he'll be back at Louisville in 2016-17.

"I just said it's highly likely that I'll be back next season," Pitino said. "I will do what I always do. I never decide anything right after the season. I'll take a couple of weeks, see how I feel. But unless I come to the belief that me being here is not what's best for the University of Louisville, then I'm coming back to work for a championship."

This is the question that I probably get asked more than any other these days, so let me join the chorus and serve up an official "I don't know either." Three weeks ago I would have said that I think Louisville will be in the market for another coach come April, but as of right now, I have zero clue. That said, it's hard not to be encouraged by Pitino's comments over the course of the last 10 days. or so.

As with everything else, all we can do is wait and react.