LOUISVILLE, Ky. – “The system is broken,” Rick Pitino said, and he was off.
A day after being told by his University of Louisville bosses that his very good basketball team will have no postseason, Pitino was by no means shying away from that painful topic. The Friday press conference to announce the school’s shocking, self-imposed ban featured a whole lot of no-comment from hired investigative adviser Chuck Smrt, and a whole lot of comment from Pitino.
And he still wasn’t done. There was more to say Saturday.
For a guy who isn’t supposed to talk about the NCAA investigation swirling around his team, which moved to 19-4 Saturday by burying Boston College 79-47, he talked extensively. He might be uncontrollable for the school administration right now when it comes to keeping his mouth shut, but that doesn’t mean he’s nonsensical. There was a lot from his postgame press conference to consider.
Pitino offered an alternative to the NCAA’s tortured crime-and-punishment system, which almost always penalizes players who had nothing to do with the violations. His suggestion: fine the bejesus out of the school and take 50 percent of the head coach’s salary.
“Kill the university’s pocketbook and put it in a scholarship fund for needy kids to go to college,” Pitino said. “... We should be penalized, no question about it. But not this team. ... I think it’s wrong to penalize these kids. You hurt a lot of good people, a lot of fans. Innocent people will pay the price.”
The two innocents taking the biggest hit are graduate transfers Damion Lee and Trey Lewis. They were treated to big pregame ovations by the Yum Center crowd Saturday – Lewis in the starting lineup and Lee, who was out with a bruised knee, when Pitino had him toss up an improvisational honorary jump ball before the game.
“My heart goes out to those two fifth-year seniors for their team,” Boston College coach Jim Christian said. His players personally extended their best wishes to Lee and Lewis before tipoff.
Pitino also offered clarity on who made the controversial and wholly surprising call to self-impose the postseason ban in February: it was athletic director Tom Jurich, not school president James Ramsey. Pitino attempted to take Ramsey off the hook, after he had been vilified for the past 24 hours in this shell-shocked town. A banner hung Saturday morning from the front facade of popular Patrick O’Shea’s bar across the street from the Yum Center that read, “Ramsey Is A Coward.”
“Please, nobody blame Dr. Ramsey,” Pitino said. “Tom Jurich made this decision. Dr. Ramsey had to OK the decision. ... My faith is in Tom Jurich. He is a great AD. Did he hurt us? More than you can imagine.
“Please, don’t give [Ramsey] the heat. He’s taken enough heat from enough places.”
(That’s a reference to Ramsey being besieged in the city for a variety of non-athletic issues. Notable among them: the University of Louisville Foundation is under scrutiny from the state auditor, partly for the huge deferred compensation paid to Ramsey; and the wildly unwise decision of Ramsey and staff to dress up in stereotypical Mexican garb – ponchos, sombreros and fake mustaches – for Halloween.)
Pitino offered his critique of a Louisville administration and board of trustees that created an investigative committee that didn’t include the athletic director: He’s not a big fan of that set-up.
“Tom is the best AD in all of athletics,” Pitino said. “We love the man, we respect the man. ... You don’t go into war without your general.”
Pitino said that if Jurich were on the committee and thus aware that violations had occurred sometime before this week, the situation would have been handled by now.
“We would have done this [self-imposed ban] a month and a half ago,” Pitino said.
He even had something to say about Louisville madam Katina Powell and her book, “Breaking Cardinal Rules: Basketball and the Escort Queen,” which brought the strippers-and-escorts scandal into being.
“What was her motive? To hurt us and make money,” Pitino said. “Mission accomplished. ... They weren’t trying to clean up the ills of college basketball.”
The scandal has been simmering in Pitino’s mind all season, occasionally rising to a public boil. It’s likely to stay on the front burner for the eight games Louisville has left.
Here’s the intriguing thing: what if the Cardinals actually win the ACC regular-season title?
Boston College is a really bad team, but no-sulk Louisville won by 32 without its leading scorer. In Lee’s absence, freshman Deng Adel had 13 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two steals – hinting at his talent and reinforcing the depth of this team.
The Cardinals currently are 8-2, alone in second place in the league. One game ahead is North Carolina, which would lose a head-to-head tiebreaker with Louisville based on the Cardinals’ win over the Tar Heels on Monday.
The remaining schedule makes winning the league prohibitive: road games against Duke, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Miami and Virginia; home games against Syracuse, Duke and Georgia Tech. That’s seven remaining games against teams with winning league records, five of them on the road.
The question is whether the ACC would officially recognize Louisville as its champion. Would the Cards get to hoist a trophy and raise a banner with the league’s blessing? Nobody seemed to know here Saturday.
It may become a moot point rather quickly. The next two games are at Duke on Monday (where the Cameron Crazies are sure to treat the scandal-scarred Cards with love and tenderness) and at Notre Dame next Saturday.
The odds may be long, but that’s all Louisville has to play for now. They’ll put away the basketballs March 5, no matter what.
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