BOZICH | Road to 700 wins took Rick Pitino through Kentucky, Lou - WDRB 41 Louisville News

BOZICH | Road to 700 wins took Rick Pitino through Kentucky, Louisville, Adelphi

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Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich (right) helped Rick Pitino celebrate his 700th victory Wednesday night. Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich (right) helped Rick Pitino celebrate his 700th victory Wednesday night.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – I hate to stir the political correctness crowd, but there were stretches when it appeared the University of Louisville was playing with four sports writers and an usher Wednesday night against Cleveland State.

Rick Pitino did not say that.

Rick Bozich said that.

Pitino did not say anything that figures to make Seth Greenberg and talk radio howl after his Cardinals defeated Cleveland State, 45-33. (That's a final, not a partial, score. Eric Crawford and I could have done better work at the foul line. Not sure about the usher.)

But I found one sound bite that explains why Pitino has now officially surged to 700 victories even though he surrendered six complete seasons to coaching in the NBA.

Asked what he remembered about his first victory as a head coach, Pitino's mind flashed back to another game:

Adelphi 67, Boston University 65.

That is correct. A loss -- one that still has the coach stomping his loafers.

It was the sixth game of his first season as the head coach at Boston U. His team had already defeated St. Peter's and Massachusetts and played Connecticut tough. Then came the loss to the Adelphi Panthers, a Division II program.

That was Dec. 11, 1978 – and Pitino remembers it as if it happened 36 seconds ago. They say that's the way it is with the Hall of Famers. The losses marinate longer than the victories soothe.

“I wanted to take my first plunge in the East River,” Pitino said. "It was right before a holiday. I was so miserable."

There were moments when it looked as if Pitino would be leading a group of Louisville fans directly from the KFC Yum! Center to the Ohio River Wednesday night.

His team played like a group of guys convinced that their 61-point victory over Savannah State was guaranteed to translate into a 65-point victory over Cleveland State because Savannah beat Cleveland State by four points four days ago.

Didn't happen.

Not with the Cards shooting less than 32 percent from the field, 15 percent from three-point line and 46.2 percent from the foul line. Not with Louisville getting zero points from its bench.

Not with the Cards scoring the second-fewest points a Rick Pitino-coached team has scored in 945 college games.

Pitino has work to do with this team. Shooting to improve. Passing to sharpen. A bench to build. A playing rotation to resolve. The Cardinals are not a push-button project. Pitino figures to have a film session with his cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving.

Before Louisville opened this season against Minnesota, Pitino's son, Chris, said that his Dad's teams often threw in a clunker early in the season. This one qualified.

But rather than rage or hold his players in the locker room, Pitino appeared energized by the task of trying to put this team together – beginning with the challenge that Ohio State will present Tuesday night and then the grind of the Atlantic Coast Conference season.

“The thing I'm most proud of about the run (to 700), besides the players I've coached, is I've been able to keep passion for the game and love for the game,” Pitino said. “I think I love the game more today than I did in my 20s.”

As a veteran Pitinologist who always includes the first two games I watched Pitino coach (Alabama and Georgetown in the 1987 NCAA Tournament in Freedom Hall) on a list of his 10 greatest wins, I think his most enduring strength is his ability to build a team and win regardless of the circumstances.

Call the roll: He demonstrated the wisdom of embracing the three at Providence, the first season the game added the new weapon.  But never forget Pitino followed up the three-point fireworks that toppled Alabama by taking the ball inside against Georgetown.

At Kentucky, he won with guys who had no shot of playing in the NBA (John Pelphrey, Richie Farmer, Sean Woods) and with the guys who made millions in the league (Antoine Walker, Tony Delk, Ron Mercer).

He pressed and played the most demanding man to man on the planet.

At Louisville, sometimes Pitino presses and sometimes he does not. These days you'll see more zone than man to man. His teams use the three, but he is not obsessed with the shot. Pitino has several recruits that everybody wanted – and several others that did not make the message boards hyperventilate. His rosters here have not been stacked with NBA locks.

Doesn't seem to matter.

Pitino will take what he has and figure out what gives his group the best opportunity to win.

This year it will likely be rebounding and defense. A five-game sample against mostly modest competition suggests the Cards' offense, especially the shooting, needs work. He'll figure it out. That's what got him to Springfield and two national titles.

“Our offense will be fine,” Pitino said. “We'll get it going … it was a good grinding win.”

And much better than what happened against Adelphi.

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