Rick Pitino is the king of commonwealth Kentucky hoops. Not only is he the first coach to win a national championship at two different universities, but the 17 years between his national titles was the longest dry period in NCAA history. Much has changed between Louisville and Kentucky. What Pitino has done would be akin to Bill Cosby joining the cast of The Game and winning an Emmy.
His last title came in 1996 as the Kentucky Wildcats left its big blue footprint all across the nation. They won all 16 games in the SEC, finished the season 34-2 and Kentucky fans nicknamed them “The Untouchables” after one of the most dominant seasons in college hoops history.
Furthermore, eight players from Kentucky’s Untouchables roster were drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft. In contrast, most NBA scouts at the Georgia Dome Monday were more interested in observing Michigan’s Fab Four instead of Louisville’s gritty roster.
When Pitino traded in his Kentucky blue for Louisville red, he also adopted a whole new philosophy. At Kentucky, he was the manager of an NBA prospect factory.
In an age where the top high school prospects have chosen to take the Miami Heat route and conglomerate on the same campus(es), Louisville is a refreshing change of pace. Just look at their recruiting classes. Pitino doesn’t lasso in hordes of McDonald’s All-Americans, only intermittently notched top-10 recruiting classes over the last decade. They’ve had just one in the last five seasons and have never finished in the top five. But, over this same ten-year span, Louisville has reched three Final Fours and two Elite Eights.
If Kentucky can immortalize their memorable teams with nicknames like the Draft Cats, the Eighth Wonders or The Unforgettables, then the Cardinals deserve a moniker of their own. Meet The Undraftables.
Dieng is a late-first rounder on Chad Ford’s Big Board but he may be the only player on Louisville’s roster to get drafted. The second-highest ranked prospect on the squad is Russ Smith, but he’s projected as a mid-second rounder at the earliest.
It’s most fitting that he won the big one in a year, in which Kentucky’s bubble burst and Pitino began the tournament in his old digs at Rupp Arena.
While Calipari is driving ‘round neighborhoods packing one-and-dones into the back seats, Pitino developed sophomores, juniors and seniors – college athletes, not prospects. Louisville took a long winding road to this title. This was the epitome of a college team.
Smith had to reign in his quirkiness after a year at prep school and developed an interesting relationship with Pitino. Siva pulled the gun his father planned to commit suicide with from his hands and Gorgui Dieng matriculated from Senegal after developing into one of the best players in Africa’s farm system.
Smith’s handles are untouchable and he’s got the craftiness to sneak into the lane Zero Dark Thirty-style, but he should get used to playing in front of smaller crowds in D-League venues or learn Italian. Not many 6-1 shooting guards in the league share his Scarface-like shoot first, ask questions later mentality.
He shares JR Smith’s ”cold as ice to hotter than the sun” range, but he’s five inches shorter.
Manti Te’o’s sluggish 40 time shouldn’t speak for all Samoans. Siva has elite athleticism and two Big East Tournament MVPs, but his NBA prospects are like Lennay Kekua--hard to find.
Dieng is the only first round prospect, but he’s already 23, didn’t even average double figures in points or rebounds this season and lobbed a sugary donut (0 points) up on the scoreboard against Wichita State’s physical frontcourt. Luke Hancock should have been doing Antoine Walker’s shimmy after going 8-for-12 from behind the arc during the Final Four. Chane Behanan dropped atomic bombs on countless players situated under the rim, but he’s not long enough to play power forward in the League.
For the Cards, Wes Unsled, Pervis Ellison and Darrell Griffth aren’t walking through that door. The KFC Yum! Center has become an outpost for eye of the beholder recruits that fit into Pitino’s gassing full-court pressure system (hopefully, Shaka Smart is watching). There are zero high school All-Americans in his 2013 recruiting class, but he’s discovered how to make it work and there’s no reason to doubt he can do it again.
This time, the lure of the NBA is no longer there, agents aren’t sneaking around campus and expectations aren’t “repeat or bust.” The Untouchables were a much better team, but his championship with The Undraftables will always be the most impressive line on Pitino’s resume.