- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Mathematicians and connoisseurs of coincidence have no doubt noted that this is Bob Knight’s fourth season at Texas Tech and Rick Pitino’s fourth at Louisville. And now they’re taking their first trip to the Sweet 16 at those schools — with a realistic chance to go even further.

Which tells us … what? Well, first of all, it tells us that, even for a coaching legend, turning around a basketball program takes more than just the snap of a few fingers. Four years represents one recruiting cycle — during which the Previous Coach’s players are cycled out and the New Coach’s guys are cycled in. Only then is the transition complete, only then does the team cease to be the hoops equivalent of a broken family.

It took Lefty Driesell four years to make it to the NCAA tournament at Maryland. It took Al McGuire four years to do the same at Marquette. It took Mike Krzyzewski four years to reach the NCAAs at Duke. It took Jim Calhoun four years to do likewise at Connecticut. Some coaches do it a little faster (Lute Olson needed only two years at Arizona), some do it a little slower (Gary Williams, burdened by probation, took five years with the Terps), but four years is pretty standard when a program requires more than just a touch up.

Texas Tech, in particular, was a real tear-down job. There wasn’t much of a foundation there when Knight arrived, just a nice, almost-new arena and a legacy of losing. In the late-‘90s, the NCAA police had descended on the place and stripped Tech of its Sweet 16 finish in the ‘96 tournament — the high point in the school’s basketball history. Around the same time, a former player had admitted he’d gotten credit for a course by answering half a dozen questions over the telephone.

Nobody turned up any certificates of welding, but you couldn’t sink much lower than Texas Tech basketball had. (Especially when you consider the “free bail bonding and legal services” that were provided to the school’s athletes, according to the NCAA.) But Knight needed work, having pitched one too many fits at Indiana, Tech needed a coach, having rid itself of James Dickey, and here the Red Raiders are, getting ready to play seventh-seeded West Virginia for a spot in the Elite Eight. It’s kind of like Napoleon being banished to Elba — and then turning it into a world power.

OK, maybe the “world power” business is a stretch, but Knight has succeeded in bringing quality, the-way-the-game-was-meant-to-be-played basketball to Lubbock. And that’s miraculous enough. His predecessor’s teams, after all, were more into fun than fundamentals; the ‘96 club (featuring Jason Sasser and Tony Battie), lost a wild 98-90 game to Georgetown in the East regional semis, and the one in ‘95 lost an even wilder 107-104 game to Texas in the Southwest Conference tournament final.

After four years of indoctrination, though, Knight has Ronald Ross and Co. making crisp passes, taking high-percentage shots and hunkering down in his trademark man-to-man defense. Indeed, they look like his Hoosiers teams of old — not that anyone should be surprised. This is a man, let’s not forget, who won 22 games one season at Army.

Besides, nobody ever said Knight couldn’t coach, only that he seemed to have misplaced his sense of perspective. Fortunately for folding chairs everywhere, he appears to be enjoying himself more in his new life. So totally has he embraced his West Texas surroundings that he even has a staffer named Bubba (Jennings, his video operations manager).

Over at Louisville, Pitino didn’t have to deal with quite the same level of devastation Knight did. The Cardinals were just four years removed from a regional final when he took over for Denny Crum in 2001. Still, replacing an icon is no walk in the park. Just ask Tubby Smith (or better yet, Mike Davis).

You get the feeling, though, that Pitino has had enough of this rebuilding stuff, that he’s determined to get the program back on top this season, no matter what it takes. Why do you get this feeling? Because he actually has Francisco Garcia and friends playing some 2-3 matchup zone, a radical departure from his man-to-man philosophy. But, hey, it’s working so far; even Taquan Dean, the Cards’ sweet-shooting guard, says he’s “confused” by what the team is doing defensively.

Anyway, four years was all it took for Pitino and Knight, four years to beat the rugs and put out the trash and piece together a Sweet 16 team. What they do still works — and thank goodness for that.

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