Pitino Says UofL's 2012 Expectations Tougher Than UK's In 1997

07/24/2012 02:26 AM

You could call last season’s run through the Big East Tournament and march to the Final Four in New Orleans a surprise for the Louisville basketball team and it wouldn’t be a stretch. After all, following their 12-0 start and rise to #4 in the polls, the Cards went 2-5 and had some wondering if they’d even find their way into the NCAA Tournament, especially after finishing the regular season with wins in only two of their final six games.

But in college basketball, it’s all about what you do in March and the Cards got their groove back just in time to join their in-state rivals in New Orleans. And with only Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith on the way out the door, to be replaced by George Mason transfer Luke Hancock and incoming freshmen Montrezl Harrell and Terry Rozier (maybe), the Cards are a preseason pick to make back-to-back runs to the national semifinals. In fact, there are real expectations for Rick Pitino’s club to find their way to Atlanta. The expectations are so real, Pitino says they’re the toughest he’s ever faced. Ever. And that includes trying to win his second consecutive national title at Kentucky.

The Louisville head coach told ESPN’s Andy Katz, “This past year at Louisville, we didn’t expect to go but now we have high expectations to go and do it. I think this time will be tougher than it was at Kentucky. At Kentucky, it was totally unexpected, but this time it will be expected. It’s hard to have a Final Four that will be expected.”

Say what?

There’s an argument to be made – and a pretty good one at that – that the expectations at Kentucky will almost certainly be higher than any place on Earth, regardless of the season. Like Calipari says, you guys are crazy. And while the 1996 team that Pitino led to a national title over Syracuse is considered to be one of the greatest teams of all-time, Final Four expectations certainly existed in 1997. After all, it’s Kentucky.

The Cats entered the season ranked third in the nation and won the Great Alaska Shootout behind a duo (Ron Mercer and Derek Anderson) who would be selected in the NBA Draft lottery a few months later. And after running away from the field in the SEC Tournament with an average win margin of 29 points without the injured Anderson, they ended the season with a 30-4 record and as a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. If Rick Pitino thought a trip to the 1997 Final Four in Indianapolis was unexpected, he was probably the only one. Even Sports Illustrated’s Alexander Wolff wrote his Final Four preview story about the lack of surprises in the field made up of UK, Minnesota, Arizona and North Carolina.

“Unexpected, party of one, your table is ready.”

So does Louisville enter this season under the same weighty expectations as Kentucky in 1997? Probably not. Even the most optimistic UofL fan will distance themselves from a word like “expectation”. It’s just too hard to expect much of anything in college basketball when just once bounce of a ball can leave even the most gifted players humbled. And besides, is anyone really buying that there’s pressure on Rick Pitino this season after getting Louisville to a Final Four? No way.

But it’s not the craziest off-season statement we’ve heard from the Louisville coach – Mike Marra, the greatest shooter Pitino has ever coached, will have to get his career three-point percentage above Marquis Estill and Perry Stevenson before we start having that conversation – because while there might not be expectation of another Final Four, there is certainly optimism for one.

For all of the reasons listed above and because conventional basketball wisdom says Chane Behanan, Wayne Blackshear and Gorgui Dieng should continue to improve, the Cards are lumped into a top three along with a young, but reloaded, UK squad and the consensus preseason #1 team, Indiana. But with the same questions surrounding this year’s UofL team that plagued them last year, you could argue that they’re a legitimate national contender, in part, because there are no bona fide national title teams in the field.

The 2012-13 season is void of a marquee team and even Indiana, who returns nearly all of their Sweet Sixteen group and features a National Player of the Year candidate in Cody Zeller, pales in comparison to the UK, North Carolina, Ohio State, Kansas and Syracuse teams from a year ago. UofL is considered a national title contender as much for their roster and their Final Four team from a year ago as they are because no true powerhouse exists. Pressure by default?

And there’s a similar situation brewing at Kentucky, where six players are now in the NBA and a new roster looks to make their way to the Final Four for the school’s not second, but third straight trip. The Cats are right there with the Cards in terms of preseason hope and it’s partially because there’s really not a good reason not to have them there. They’re a mystery at this point, but who can you say for certain is better? Indiana? Maybe. Louisvile? We’ll find out. But the possibility of another run has the Big Blue Nation fired up and ready to party in Atlanta during the last weekend in March. Yes, even after a national championship, UK fans are talking about taking a completely different team back to the Final Four. Hey, it’s Kentucky.

So what kind of pressure and expectation does Rick Pitino face entering this season? They’re, at best, in the same neighborhood as what John Calipari’s 2012-13 club faces as they try to repeat for the most dialed-in fan base in college sports. Just like in 1997. Now, that is tough.


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