After a tumultuous offseason, Rick Pitino is set to begin his ninth season at Louisville.
He will be going up against a familiar face Tuesday night in St. Louis when his 20th-ranked Cardinals take on Arkansas and coach John Pelphrey, who got a record-setting performance from Rotnei Clarke in his team’s opener.
Pitino certainly would like the focus of this matchup to be on his relationship with Pelphrey - who played for him at Kentucky - after news broke in the offseason of a sexual relationship Pitino had six years ago with a woman later charged with trying to extort millions from him.
Karen Cunagin Sypher said she became pregnant after the encounter and Pitino paid her $3,000 for an abortion. The coach said the money was for health insurance, and a federal case against Sypher hasn’t been decided yet.
Pitino apologized in August and reaffirmed his commitment to the Cardinals in an emotionally charged press conference in which he chastised the media for coverage of the scandal.
There probably isn’t a season that Pitino, the only coach to lead three schools to the Final Four, has been more eager to begin.
“I am totally focused right now, as I am every basketball season,” Pitino said before preseason practice began in October.
The Cardinals fell one game shy of the Final Four last season despite being the top-ranked team in the nation entering the NCAA tournament. They will try to repeat as Big East champions behind power forward Samardo Samuels (11.8 points per game), point guard Edgar Sosa (7.3) and shooting guard Jerry Smith (7.8).
Louisville, winner of five straight openers, was picked to finish fourth in the Big East.
“We are kind of under the radar and I like it that way,” Smith said.
Pelphrey was a forward at Kentucky under Pitino in the early 1990s and was among four seniors dubbed “The Unforgettables” by Wildcats fans, who watched those players help lead the program back to prominence. The coach can relate to the rough offseason his mentor endured.
Entering his third season at Arkansas, Pelphrey suspended five players indefinitely, three of whom were identified but not charged in a rape investigation. The decision left Arkansas with eight eligible players: six on scholarship, along with quarterback Brandon Mitchell and golfer Stephen Cox.
“We understand exactly who we are and what we’re up against,” Pelphrey said. “My whole thing has always been as a player or a coach is that whoever shows up to the park and has a uniform on, that’s who we’re going with.
“We’re not making any excuses, we’re not worried about what we don’t have. This is our opportunity and we’ll do the best we can with it.”
The thin roster didn’t prevent Arkansas from opening with a 130-68 rout of Alcorn State last Friday. Clarke scored 51 points to break Martin Terry’s school record of 47, and hit 13 3-pointers in eclipsing the SEC mark of 12 set by Arkansas’ Al Dillard.
“I just felt like every time I shot it, it was going in,” Clarke said. “I guess it was just one of those zones.”
Clarke averaged 12.2 points last season as a freshman, with a high game of 26.
Louisville and Arkansas have split six meetings, with the Razorbacks winning 100-83 in the last one Dec. 9, 1997.