Some Knocks Against Pitino

by John Witten

John Witten played college basketball at Rice, and coached the sport with Scott Davenport at Ballard, Sonny Smith at Auburn and with the Louisville Shooters of the Global Basketball Association. He’s a management professional and one of the hosts of Saturday’s big Cabo Wabo party. Here’s his first piece at

Pitino's emphasis should be on offense

Rick Pitino once referred to Kentucky as “The Roman Empire of college basketball.” However, the following quote is more applicable —  “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.”

It expresses double meanings of the word fiddle (Coaching). First it presents the picture of an individual playing a musical instrument as he took a sadistic pleasure in the terrible misfortunes of others. Secondly it represents ineffectual effort. That is, Nero (Rick Pitino), who should have made himself useful, was fiddling.

Could it be that the issues that persist with the Cards can be blamed on Pitino for putting so much emphasis on defense? Are the head games he plays with his players, the media and the fans paralyzing his understanding of the game?

For years Rick made it known his emphasis on a team statistic known as “deflections.” A deflection is credited every time a player gets his hand on an opponents’ pass or dribble. Over the years other coaches began to pick up on this philosophy and terminology and began applying it to their teams’ psychology. One problem that I have always found with this concept is one, it is a bogus stat, and secondly, with so much emphasis placed on this stat it encourages players to gamble defensively and takes them out of defensive position forcing their teammates to help incurring similar negitive results. Yes, basketball is a team sport. Help is required. The most important thing in the gym is the ball. You defend the ball from the goal. Simple enough…

However, the most important action on the basketball floor is scoring. That is the statistic that is tracked on million dollar scoreboards and the statistic that determines winners. It’s the reason for playing the game.

In Rick’s first year at Kentucky (1989-90), the team was on probation and he introduced an entertaining style to Rupp Arena. This style was being used in other programs as well, but the Run and Shoot style thrived in Rupp. What is often lost in the Pitino lore is that he inherited a very talented team of Basketball Players. Yes, Basketball Players. Basketball Players are fundamentally sound players that may lack in athletic ability but exude the basketball skills, acumen  (IQ), desire and dedication necessary for the foundation needed to regain basketball dominance. This team had shooters.

Sadly, Rick’s first team at Kentucky would have throttled this Louisville team. This team was recruited to a $300 million state of the art arena, a palace that 10 years ago Rick said we don’t need. This team shows tremendous signs of regression. Peyton Siva is beginning to look more and more like Edgar Sosa. Kyle Kuric was better as a sophomore and junior. Gorgui Dieng resembled the next Hakeem Olajuwon last year; this year he looks as overwhelmed as a pre-schooler in med-school. It’s a cliche, but true — “offense puts butts in seats and defense wins championships.”  If you can’t score, you can’t win. Deflections don’t count!!!

A Head Coach or Business CEO is only as good as his assistants/managers. Since Rick has coached at Louisville his staff has primarily consisted of friends, friends of family, family and people that are owed favors. I would categorize his staffs at Louisville as Yes Men. We are reaping the results. There is one caveat.

Where’s a Willard?

Let me expose who is no longer behind the curtain. The teams of 2009-2011 had Ralph Willard on the sidelines. Ralph was with Pitino at UK in ’89-90, and has been a successful coach in his own right. In his first Head Coaching position he took Western Kentucky to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen and later Holy Cross of the Patriot League to both the NIT and NCAA tournaments. Ralph is no Yes Man and would challenge Rick.

Willard # 2. Kevin Willard, who spent seven seasons next to Pitino at U of L, is now Head Coach of Seton Hall, though Rick made a great effort to dissuade Kevin from accepting the position. He left U of L for Iona, where he spent 3 years. In Kevin’s second year at the helm, the Pirates are currently 4-1 in Big East play and 14-2 overall.

While there has been a Willard on the staff, the Louisville offense seemed to thrive and scoring was a non-issue. After all, wins are determined by points, not deflections, which apparently Rick has forgotten.

An NBA General Manager told me,” If you make 75% of your free throws and 80% of your layups, (shots around the new arch in the lane) you’ll win 90% of your games!”

Some stats from last year’s NCAA Finals: Jim Calhoun- UConn NCAA 2011 Champions Final Four Stats- FT (14-16) game 1; Championship Game FT (9-11)