BOZICH | Hidden player in Louisville scandal? Recruiting pressure in 2010
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The year the latest nonsense allegedly began inside the University of Louisville basketball program was 2010.
The calendar matters. The calendar provides context. The calendar reminds you of the discontent percolating around Rick Pitino’s program when Katina Powell alleges she was introduced to players and recruits.
People howled about Louisville basketball in 2010. They were not howling about Powell providing strippers, sex and other services to players and recruits.
They were annoyed for the reason fans are perpetually annoyed -- the Cardinals were not winning as relentlessly as fans wanted Pitino’s program to win.
Pitino was nine seasons into his run as Denny Crum’s replacement. The Cardinals had visited the Final Four one time, in 2005.
Not good enough. Not even close.
This was before the 2013 NCAA championship, before Pitino was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, before the program joined the Atlantic Coast Conference and before the Cardinals made their move from Freedom Hall into the sparkling KFC Yum! Center downtown.
The Cardinals finished the 2010 season with ugly back-to-back defeats, scoring 66 points during a first-round loss to Cincinnati in the Big East Tournament and then getting bounced by 15 points against California in their opening NCAA Tournament game. California?
Some Cards’ fans had lost faith that Pitino was still the guy to bring the school its third NCAA championship. They were ready to put Pitino on a one-day contract.
A year earlier Louisville was the overall top seed in the NCAA Tournament, but that team was upset by Michigan State in the Midwest Regional final. Not good enough. Not even close.
About a month later Pitino’s world was flipped upside down by the revelation of his sexual encounter with Karen Cunagin Sypher. She was later convicted of attempting to extort Pitino. She is still serving her 87-month sentence in federal prison.
But the hit to Pitino’s reputation was substantial.
One more thing: John Calipari was just starting to roll at the University of Kentucky.
Calipari collected signatures from nearly every recruit he wanted. The John Wall/DeMarcus Cousins/Eric Bledsoe class in 2009 was followed by the Brandon Knight/Doron Lamb/Terrence Jones class in 2010.
Back-to-back Number One classes.
Pressure to upgrade recruiting?
Pitino has argued that nobody with half a brain believes providing sex helps recruiting. Other coaches will tell you recruiting is a by any means necessary sport. No allegation is too outrageous for me.
What was the outlook for Louisville’s recruiting in 2010, the year Katina Powell said she was asked to provide women to entertain U of L players and recruits?
In 2010, Louisville did not sign a Top 25 class.
In 2010, Louisville’s recruiting class included Russ Smith, Gorgui Dieng, Elisha Justice and Justin Coleman.
Smith and Dieng eventually became two of Louisville’s five starters on the 2013 NCAA championship team. But they were not 5-star guys. When Pitino signed that class, skeptics debated his ability to get his share of Grade A commitments.
Fallout from the Sypher case was a wedge opposing coaches tried to drive between Pitino and prospects.
Does that validate any of Powell’s claims about services she said her escorts provided for U of L basketball?
No. Not at all.
It’s just a reminder of the atmosphere around the program in 2010. There was turnover on Pitino’s staff. Maybe somebody felt the need to produce.
Validation will have to come from interviews with the people mentioned in Powell's book, “Breaking Cardinal Rules: Basketball and the Escort Queen.” One thing Powell wrote was that she started to feel like “part of the recruitment team.”
Validation of her story started Thursday. According to a story at CBSSports.com, JaQuan Lyle, a former U of L commitment now playing at Ohio State, confirmed some of the story to an NCAA investigator.
Eric Crawford of WDRB reported that a source said a player told a U of L investigator that on at least one occasion strippers did visit the players’ on-campus dormitory.
Remember the landscape in 2010. Pressure escalated to sign better recruits, win more games and advance deeper in March.
A first-round NCAA Tournament loss to California in 2010. Fans complained. A first-round NCAA loss to Morehead State in 2011. Fans really complained.
Recruiting improved in 2011. The Cardinals did not sign just one McDonald’s all-American. They signed a pair. Rivals ranked that Louisville signing class ninth best in the nation. The 2013 class was small and not considered special. But Rivals ranked the 2014 class seventh nationally and the 2015 class ninth.
By 2012 the Cardinals had returned to the Final Four. The howling subsided.
A year after that Pitino became the first coach to win NCAA titles at two different schools. The Hall of Fame called. In 2015 Louisville made a successful first run through the Atlantic Coast Conference. Pitino was back on top.
But Pitino and his staff were not on top in 2010, the year Katina Powell says she got involved with Louisville basketball. In 2010, fans howled that they expected better from his basketball program. That is context worth considering.
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