- Associated Press - Friday, March 30, 2012

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Before the Big East tournament, Louisville coach Rick Pitino told his players they had a choice.

Keep playing the same way and Louisville was all but guaranteed of making another first-weekend exit from the NCAA tournament, just as it had the past two years.

Turn things around, and the Cardinals had a chance to do something special.

“He pretty much told us the ball is in our court,” senior Chris Smith said. “Everybody is healthy so we have no excuses. We can make our own dreams come true.”

The fourth-seeded Cardinals, who face top-seeded and in-state rival Kentucky on Saturday night for a spot in the NCAA title game, aren’t the only ones enjoying a second act.

Almost three years after an extortion case exposed the messy details of his private life and left his buttoned-down reputation in tatters, Pitino is on top of the coaching world again. Louisville is back in the Final Four for the first time since 2005 after what is undoubtedly one of the finest coaching jobs of Pitino’s career.

The Cardinals (30-9) were riddled with injuries during the season, skidding into the Big East tournament just two games over .500 in conference play, including four losses in their last six games. But Louisville ripped off four wins in as many days and has shown no sign of cooling off.

“We definitely feel like we’re the team that’s not supposed to be here,” point guard Peyton Siva said.

Think of the big names in college coaching, and Pitino was always near the top of the list. He was the first men’s coach to take three different schools to the Final Four, starting with that scrappy, undersized, 3-point shooting Providence team 25 years ago. He won an NCAA title with Kentucky in 1996.

And with his finely tailored suits and natty shoes, he gave the schlumpy look of college coaches a much-needed makeover.

All of which made his admission in 2009 that he’d had a sexual encounter with a woman who later tried to extort millions from him that much more shocking. The scandal transfixed the entire state of Kentucky for the better part of two years, and the tawdry details _ Karen Cunagin Sypher claimed Pitino gave her money for an abortion, the coach said it was for health insurance, she later married Louisville’s equipment manager Tim Sypher _ fueled talk that Pitino might step down.

There were rumors Pitino was on his way to Arizona. Or maybe back to the NBA with Sacramento. Then there were those who whispered that he was “stuck” at Louisville, too damaged to go anywhere.

“A lot of times the last two years I took a lot of grief from a lot of people saying a lot of things,” Pitino said last week after making his sixth Final Four. “And I never thought in my life I could turn the other cheek and just walk on. And I did. And some of the most ugly things I’ve heard, I just took it inside. And today, as I look back on it, I’m real proud that you could turn the other cheek.”

Though Pitino takes responsibility for the mess he found himself in _ “I brought that about myself” _ he refuses to assign any added importance to it. It didn’t change his life, it didn’t turn his personality inside out.

Make no mistake, however, Pitino has changed.

Or maybe, a few months shy of his 60th birthday and with grandkids he adores, he’s simply mellowed.

Oh, the temper is still there. Maybe not to the level of “Larry Bird is not walking through that door,” but he still has his moments. His players have learned to listen to his words, not the volume of his voice. When Pitino felt the referees were giving Florida coach Billy Donovan too many favorable calls in Louisville’s game against Florida last weekend, Pitino screamed, “Why don’t you just give him a whistle?”

Mind you, that was “Billy the Kid” on the opposite bench, probably the favorite player Pitino has ever had and one so close to him that Donovan is like another one of his kids.

But there’s no longer an edge to the harshness. His barbs are more like the one-liners you’d hear from a grandfather, and his players know that beneath the bluster are the coach’s best intentions. Pitino has talked repeatedly the last few years of the “precious present,” trying to get teenagers and 20-somethings who think they’re invincible to realize that tomorrow is promised to no one.

“My freshman year, I said maybe four words to him,” said Kyle Kuric, a senior and Louisville’s leading scorer. “Now the freshmen, they have conversations with him; they’re showing him pictures. He really connects with the team in a better way, and we have a stronger bond because of it.”

Unlike the Wildcats, the Cardinals don’t have a roster filled with surefire NBA stars or All-Americans. Heck, no one on their roster fits that bill. But by blending Xs and Os with an indefatigably positive attitude, and adapting to what seems like a new system in every game, Pitino has coaxed his team into the Final Four.

In short, he’s reminded everyone that beneath the fancy suits and the designer shoes, he’s one of the best coaches in the game.

“This is our chance to win a championship,” Pitino said. “We’ve got just as much to lose as (the Wildcats) do. Because it’s not easy to get here.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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