A poor outside shooting team with virtually no depth, no offensive production from the center position, and who dismissed their starting point guard late in the season is all of the sudden one game away from the Final Four.
Despite all the frustrating performances throughout the season, poor ball movement, and lack of development from a young bench, Louisville coach Rick Pitino has worked a coaching miracle. He somehow has this group of misfits into legitimate national championship contenders.
Make no mistake, a month ago, this team looked far more like a team destined for a first-round exit than a team capable of making any kind of a run. Pitino at times did not sound like he enjoyed coaching this particular team, and on the court, the team appeared out of sync and less than thrilled to be playing with one another. To top it all off, point guard Chris Jones, arguably the best defensive point guard in the country, was dismissed in late February, delivering a major blow to the team’s already thin depth.
And yet, somehow, some way, here they sit, one win away from the program’s third Final Four in the past four seasons. That is simply remarkable, and Pitino’s coaching prowess has been all the difference.
The Hall-of-Fame coach has once again worked his magic and silence his doubters, of which there were many. Much of the criticism was warranted, which tends to happen when a team is only getting consistent production from three players per game. His six-man freshman class (who he constantly claimed not to be physically ready and behind in learning the system) spent most of their time on the bench, and he was not shy about throwing his players under the bus, referring to certain players as not being a “Louisville man.” With the team giving less than satisfactory performances, the fans voiced their frustrations.
Like any fan base, too, this one has a few that like to overreact. The “Fire Pitino” crowd from 2011 began to resurface. When reminded of how that season ended, this group refused to see any parallels, saying that was a completely different situation. In a way, they are not wrong.
The 2011-12 team was mainly held back by a slew of injuries, including an absent Wayne Blackshear. They had a solid point guard searching for (and eventually finding) consistency in Peyton Siva, as well as a savvy second-year center in Gorguie Dieng. When they got healthy, they took their game to another level.
This year’s team had no injury problems. They also lost their point guard and never had a reliable center. So yes, they were right in saying this season was not comparable to 2012. Yet, they were obviously wrong in believing Pitino could not work the same magic to put his team in position to make a run.
The postseason coaching job he has done has been second to none. He does not have the veteran leadership and depth of a Wisconsin or Virginia. He does not have the depth and NBA talent as Kentucky. Those coaches did fine jobs, without a doubt, but none could have done what Pitino has done with this team.
The man had to throw a defensively raw, little used freshman point guard into the fire, and he not only has him buying into what he needs to do, but he has him thriving. Quentin Snider is averaging 13 points per game, shooting 45.8% from the field (38.5% from three), and has the team playing together offensively like they have not done all season. Pitino scoffed at the idea the team was better without Chris Jones, but from a chemistry standpoint, Snider has at the very least been a major difference maker. Oh, and he has also just committed two turnovers.
He is also now beginning to get contributions from his young bench, too, something he had not done been getting all season. Freshman forward Jaylen Johnson gave valuable minutes in the first two rounds spelling Montrezl Harrell off the bench, and sophomore guard Anton Gill arguably won the game for Louisville vs. NC State, scoring 7 points off the bench and initiating a game-changing Louisville run.
Then there is Wayne Blackshear, the veteran wing who has never quite lived up to the billing he set for himself coming out of high school. That is, until now. Blackshear has played like a man who does not want his college career to end, and he has put together perhaps the finest string of games in his Louisville career. He was the primary reason for Louisville avoiding a first-round upset to UC-Irvine with his clutch play, and he is attacking the basket consistently. He is averaging an admirable 13 points, 5 rebounds, and shooting 39% from the field. He is also displaying impeccable leadership like telling Pitino to leave Gill in vs. NC State while he was feeling it.
Yes, Louisville certainly received a favorable draw in the tourney, but that should not discredit anything the team has done. The NC State game is a prime example, as the Wolfpack was a terrible matchup for the Cards and smacked them in the mouth in the YUM! Center on Valentine’s Day. Yet, it was Louisville who would win the rematch by double digits.
He definitely has a tall task ahead of him going up Sunday afternoon against another head coaching genius (and March monster) in Tom Izzo, but for the second time in four years, he has turned a gloomy outlook of a season into bright with potentially even brighter times to come.
He does not have the depth, he does not have the experience, and he does not have the overall talent, but he has this team a win away from the Final Four. He may not always be right, his methods may be unorthodox at times, but when push comes to shove, there is no finer coach in college basketball come tournament time than Rick Pitino. So in the future, if Louisville has some head scratching losses during the regular season and things appear bleak, just take a look at the jobs he did in 2012 and 2014 and proceed to step back from the ledge. Louisville is in good hands.