Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will spend the upcoming season chronicling the three teams widely expected to be ranked 1-2-3 in the preseason polls: Indiana, Kentucky and Louisville. The regional rivals have a combined 15 national titles and 30 Final Four appearances, but never have they entered a season with a monopoly on the top spots in the rankings.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – There is a stack of 5 x 7 cards on Rick Pitino's desk in the Louisville basketball offices, each with a player's individual workout schedule written on them, detailed down to the minute. Another stack of cards contains play diagrams.
On another part of the desk is material for Pitino's latest book project. If there is one thing he loves nearly as much as coaching basketball, it's writing books. This will be his fourth (full disclosure, I wrote the third, in 2007).
And there is a lengthy recruiting checklist of calls to make. Among them is a call to Chicago Bulls center Nazr Mohammed, one of Pitino's greatest recruiting coups when he was at Kentucky in the mid-1990s. Pitino would like Mohammed to call a recruit's coach and put in a few good words about how he improved from overweight project to first-round pick as a Wildcat.
Behind the desk is the man who thrives amid all the multitasking, but can't wait to get down to the monomania of basketball season.
Rick Pitino looks good, which is a sure indication that it's fall.
That will change as winter approaches and the season begins. Pitino's familiar February pallor, the annual result of too much time on the job and too little sleep, will inevitably return. But at age 60, a grandfather and headed into his 33rd year as a head coach, he seems as excited as ever to embrace the enervating grind of another season.
"He's got more energy than most 35-year-olds," said Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich, who would love to reward his energetic coach with a five-year extension of a contract that still has five years to run.
A couple of years ago, Pitino would have run screaming from the idea of an extension that had him coaching until he was 70 – especially at a place where he'd already been longer than any other stop in his career. He thought seriously about retirement early in 2011. His Louisville program was re-established but not quite elite; the Cardinals could not keep up with John Calipari's juggernaut at hated rival Kentucky; and he heard the handful of critics who wondered whether the game had passed him by.
Jurich didn't want to hear it.
"Retiring was not an option," the athletic director said. "I told Rick that. We have a handshake-wink-hug deal – if he's happy and healthy, he's our coach."
Pitino persevered through a first-round NCAA tournament upset loss to Morehead State in 2011, then came back last season with one of his most rewarding years – a Big East tournament title and Cinderella Final Four run. That was his sixth trip to the Final Four, with three different schools. And that was the energizer he needed.
Now? He seems at peace with the idea of growing old on the sidelines. And doing it in Louisville, where he's entering his 12th season.
In 2010, Pitino tried to hire former assistant and former NBA head coach Jim O'Brien to return to his staff. O'Brien refused, saying he wanted to try retirement. That didn't last long as O'Brien is now an assistant with the Dallas Mavericks. The explanation he gave Pitino: "I can only play so much checkers, and I'm not good at golf. I just miss it too much."
That was echoed by another former staffer, Bill Burke, who is now living a restless retired life in Florida. Burke told Pitino recently, "We are bored 60-70 percent of the time. We actually live vicariously through your games."
Boredom might be Pitino's biggest aversion – some people have snakes, some have airplanes, Pitino has a fear of waking up with nothing to do. It's why his offseasons are filled with projects like writing books, or trips to play golf or watch his horses run.
One of those horses, 2-year-old Avare – named after his financial advisor Rick Avare – recently won his debut race at Santa Anita for Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Doug O'Neil. Avare has been established by one handicapper as a 250-1 shot to win the 139th Kentucky Derby next May. Those sound like telescopic odds now, but almost every horse out there is a Derby long shot this far in advance.
The odds to win a basketball national championship next April are considerably better for Pitino's Cardinals. And that's the biggest reason why the 60-year-old coach has the energy and enthusiasm of a much younger man right now.
Louisville returns four vital cogs from the team that won 30 games, including eight straight in the postseason before finally falling to eventual champion Kentucky in the national semifinals. Junior Gorgui Dieng will get a lot of votes as the best defensive center in America. Senior Peyton Siva ranks among the nation's finest point guards. Sophomore power forward Chane Behanan was an impact freshman who has diversified his game in the offseason. And boom-or-bust sixth man Russ Smith certainly led the nation in both stellar plays and stupid plays per minute.
That nucleus is augmented by four other intriguing parts: sophomore wing Wayne Blackshear was injured much of last year but showed flashes of his McDonald's All-American talent when healthy; sophomore guard Kevin Ware has had his jump shot rebuilt and reportedly looks like a new player; freshman forward Montrezl Harrell, a Virginia Tech signee who landed in Louisville's lap when Seth Greenberg was fired by the Hokies; and George Mason transfer Luke Hancock, who was voted a team captain after impressing everyone with his leadership and work ethic while sitting out last season.
"We're much deeper," Pitino said. "We've spent the offseason doing a lot of drills to take away bad habits and reinforce good habits, and playing one-on-one. This is the best one-on-one team I've had here."
Pitino hopes it's his fastest starting team at Louisville, too. One thing that has become a staple of his tenure here are bad early losses and a surge in February and March.
But knowing how good this team can be, Pitino opted away from his Boeheim-esque scheduling philosophy of staying home almost exclusively through December. Louisville will play in the Bahamas in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, plus making trips to College of Charleston and Memphis before Christmas.
"I want to be ready early," Pitino said. "We've never been ready early. But we open with Manhattan [which is coached by former Pitino assistant Steve Masiello]. Stevie Mass knows we're never ready, so he naturally jumped at the chance to play us in our opener. So we need to be ready."
Even at 60, Pitino is as ready as he's ever been. If his players are, too, Louisville will compete for its first national title in 26 years and he will have a chance to become the first coach to win titles at two different schools.
Then he can go after the Kentucky Derby a month later. Could be great book material.
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