This hasn't been a push-button experience as Rick Pitino has put together the top seed for the NCAA Tournament at Louisville.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Rick Pitino needs to thank Rick Pitino for the thunderous move the University of Louisville basketball team has made into the favorite's role for the 2013 NCAA Tournament.
That's Pitino (the general manager) thanking Pitino (the coach) for the flexibility the coach has shown while building toward this moment.
The team that Pitino has coached into the top overall tournament seed is several snapshots different from the group that Pitino the general manager had in mind when he started building it. Over the last four seasons, the Cards have been through Plans A, B, C and D1, D2, D3.
"A lot of people didn't really accept the class he brought in with Russ and Gorgui," said Peyton Siva, U of L's senior point guard. "They didn't know too much about them. He's put a group of good guys together with character. That's what he went out and recruited."
What's different this time is that injuries and recruiting drama have kept Pitino scrambling.
This is the squad Pitino the GM once had in mind for 2013: Peyton Siva and either Mike Marra or Justin Coleman at guard; Wayne Blackshear and Rakeem Buckles at forward; Fab Melo at center.
Siva and Blackshear are here. But this hasn't been a push-button experience for Pitino, the coach. Not after Marra and Buckles went down with knee injuries (and Buckles departed for Florida International).
Not after Coleman never became eligible and began an itinerant journey that has taken him to Marshall, Midland Junior College and who knows where else.
Not after Melo bailed on the Cards for Syracuse at the wire on national signing day in 2010.
When Pitino put his best teams together at Kentucky he had to fill-in the occasional gap. He snagged Derek Anderson from Ohio State and Mark Pope from Washington for the 1996 NCAA championship team. But his front-line recruits, guys like Tony Delk, Walter McCarty, Antoine Walker, Ron Mercer, Anthony Epps and Wayne Turner, gave that team muscle, swagger and continuity. There was never a question that group was building for its championship moment.
His 2009 U of L team, the one that also started the tournament as the top overall seed and lost in the Elite Eight, was packed with top-tier recruits like Earl Clark, Samardo Samuels and Terrence Williams. Edgar Sosa and Jerry Smith were three seasons into the program.
That hasn't been the story of this team. Pitino has done some of his best work while scrambling to fill his roster.
Russ Smith was supposed to be at Manhattan by now. Ralph Willard, Pitino's former assistant, deserves a daily Thank You note for insisting that Pitino take Smith – and then keep him.
Gorgui Dieng tagged along on a recruiting trip with Coleman. Pitino kept his number. When his big-man options began to dwindle in the absence of Melo, Pitino called. Now he's a better pro prospect than Melo – or Samuels.
"The way they (Smith and Dieng) came along, they're arguably our two best players right now," Siva said. "(Pitino) has an eye for talent. He picks the best players that he thinks have the talent and can play in the system. That's the thing about Coach P. He's able to watch a guy for 10 minutes and know right away if they're good or not."
Luke Hancock was supposed to be at George Mason, Kevin Ware was booked for Tennessee (and Central Florida) and Montrezl Harrell was bound for Virginia Tech. All three schools changed head coaches. Pitino pounced on those turnovers like Siva chasing a loose ball at midcourt.
Plans D1, D2 and D3 went into full force. Pitino went to work with the unexpected pieces. By the end of this season, Louisville started playing like the deepest team in this field.
This is not the trademark Rick Pitino team. The Cardinals don't shoot the three as well as he likes his teams to use that weapon. Russ Smith deviates from the script more often than Pitino is normally willing to tolerate. He has mixed and matched, matched and mixed.
But Pitino had a foundational piece in Siva – and he has built around him.
A team that has won 13 of 14 and has become the NCAA championship pick of wise guys everywhere.
"We knew we weren't going to be a great three-point shooting team," Pitino said. "But that did not deter us from being a team capable of scoring in bunches. We don't rely on the three. We don't shy away from it. But it's not the focal point of our offense."
Pitino (the coach) has been flexible with the pieces that Pitino (the general manager) has collected. And it shows.