Does Pitino Really Have A Gripe With The Big East Schedule?

07/05/2011 11:44 AM

At first glance, I can see why Rick Pitino might have been a little perturbed when the Big East announced its 2011-12 men’s basketball conference schedule.
Each Big East team is given three ‘repeat’ opponents they must play twice during the conference season, and two of Louisville’s repeats were Syracuse and Pittsburgh, two teams likely to be in the Top 10 in the preseason. The Cards also play at Cincinnati, Marquette and West Virginia, teams who all won at least one game in the NCAA Tournament last season.
“We have one of the premier commissioners in athletics, but whoever’s doing our scheduling must be doing it with a Ouija board,” he said. “How can you play two of the top three (projected) teams in the league twice and have to play another top team that’s a rival game (at Cincinnati) on the road for a second straight year? It just doesn’t make any sense to me. West Virginia has a similar argument. They must be doing it with a Ouija board.”
Now that Pitino’s gotten that off his chest, I think it’s time to quit griping about the schedule and play. Here’s why:
-Vanderbilt and Memphis, two projected Top 10 teams, visit the KFC Yum Center in December, and the Cards must also go to Lexington to face a loaded UK squad. So yes, this is probably is Pitino’s most challenging schedule overall in his 10 years at Louisville. But this also might be his best team. The Cards return three starters and 10 lettermen from last year’s team that won 25 games and also add a pair of McDonald’s All-Americans and Wayne Blackshear and Chane Behanan. If your team is legit, shouldn’t it be able to navigate its way through a difficult schedule and be ready to make a run in March? Take last year’s national champs, UConn, for example. UConn’s non-conference slate included a trip to the Maui Invitational, which included preseason Top 10 teams Michigan State and Kentucky, along with Tennessee and Texas, who were also viewed as Top 15 teams over the summer. The Huskies swept those four contests, and while they did lose nine Big East games, they were the country’s most battle-tested team. That showed up in the NCAA Tournament.
Bottom line: Losing games in the regular season is no crime. And after losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament the past two years, Pitino will be judged on how the Cards fare in March. Former U of L Coach Denny Crum had a come-one, come-all scheduling philosophy in the 1980’s, and while it might have resulted in some less-than-sparkling won-loss records, Crum’s team were always ready for the postseason. Better to go into the Big Dance at 25-8 with some war wounds than to be 32-2 with a false sense of security (See UK 2010 vs. 2011 below).
-Complaining about scheduling is kind of like complaining about officiating. It can be viewed as a sign of weakness. And as we’ve seen in the past, public griping about those two subjects rarely does any good. (This isn’t the first time Pitino has gone public about U of L’s conference schedule).
-Yes, playing Syracuse and Pittsburgh four times next season is tough, but the Cards also get a double dip with DePaul, who won a whopping one conference game last year.
-Also, isn’t it pointless worrying about a conference schedule in July? Preseason rankings are nice and give us something to talk about in the summer months, but they’re not very reliable. Going into last year, the consensus Big East preseason Top Five was Pittsburgh, Villanova, Syracuse, Georgetown and West Virginia.
Pitt won the regular-season title and Syracuse finished in a three-way tie for third, so the prognosticators weren’t too far off there. But Villanova and Georgetown turned out to be flops, and West Virginia ended up tying for sixth with a Cincinnati team that many thought would have a losing season. Louisville, Notre Dame and St. John’s, the three teams that ended up joining Pitt and Syracuse in the top five, were forecast in the middle of the pack or lower in the preseason. So while Louisville’s schedule might look overly challenging at the moment, you really never know how things will turn out until the ball starts bouncing.
-And don’t forget that Louisville benefitted from what turned out to be a rather manageable conference slate last year. The Cards went 5-1 in repeat games against UConn, West Virginia and Providence, none of whom were ranked in the preseason. (The Huskies ended up winning it all, but U of L has owned them since joining the Big East). U of L also picked up pivotal wins against eventual NCAA Tournament teams Marquette, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and St. John’s. All of those games were at the Yum Center.
-You can’t bring up with Rick without bringing up Cal (And why would you not want to? It’s just too much fun). John Calipari’s first UK team was loaded with first-round draft picks and one of the favorites to win the NCAA title. But only one of its non-conference opponents that year, Louisville, ended up in the Big Dance, and the Cards went out in the first round. Coincidentally or not, the Cats failed to reach the Final Four.
UK had less talent last year, but Cal beefed up the schedule a bit, watched the team take some lumps in January and February, and then UK made an unexpected run to the Final Four.
Like Pitino, Cal is playing his toughest schedule to date in 2011-12. Top-ranked North Carolina comes to Rupp, as does U of L. The Cats also play Kansas, St. John’s and what should be an improved Indiana team. Also, Florida and Vandy will be highly ranked, and Alabama and Mississippi State should find its way into the polls as well.
UK has the horses to deal with that type of schedule, just like Louisville should have the horses to deal with its schedule. Kentucky fans want to be the best and play the best, and a segment of the fan base would likely jump all over Cal if he made any references about the schedule being too tough.
That brings us to the Louisville fans. They’re the biggest winners in all of this. I’ve talked with many U of L season ticket-holders who have complained in the past about not getting enough bang for their bucks when it comes to the Cards’ home schedule.
There can be no such complaints this season. In addition to Vandy and Memphis, the Card faithful will get to watch defending national champ UConn, Pitt, Syracuse, Georgetown, Notre Dame and Villanova.
And while there have been years where Pitino didn’t have the talent to deal with this type of schedule, this doesn’t appear to be one of them. So let’s just lace ‘em up and play ball.


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