Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Pitino 'delighted' with Louisville's season

By Chris Duncan
The Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Losses in the NCAA tournament usually wreak havoc on Louisville coach Rick Pitino's emotions. Not this year.

"This is the first time I've lost that I could recover this quickly, and it's because of what these guys accomplished," Pitino said Monday, 24 hours after his team's 79-71 second-round loss to Butler. "You always want a little more. But I woke up this morning feeling great about our players and our team."

The reasons why included:

• A 25-7 record, Louisville's best since it went 26-9 in 1996-97.

• A No. 2 ranking in The Associated Press Top 25 - its highest since 1986.

• A 17-game winning streak, the longest since the 1979-80 team won 18 in a row on its way to the program's first NCAA championship.

• Louisville's first Conference USA tournament championship.

"I am absolutely delighted with this season," he said. "Out of all the teams I've ever coached, this team got the most out of their abilities."

Pitino expects next year's Cardinals to be better, despite the loss of Reece Gaines, who finished with 1,945 points, fourth on the school's all-time list.

"Nobody is going to replace him," Pitino said. "What you do is you get more out of every individual. Every player on this team has to become better, and there's no doubt we will be as good, if not better next year."

The Butler loss also ended the up-and-down college career of 6-10 Marvin Stone. Pitino said all season that Stone was a key to the Cardinals' success because he brought a much-needed inside presence.

"Marvin plugged a lot of holes," Pitino said. "He helped us get into the tournament."

Pitino sounded off one last time on the NCAA investigation that cost Stone three games late in the season.

"I didn't agree with any of it," Pitino said. "The timing was all wrong. If the investigation was going to happen, it should've happened a lot sooner."

The NCAA examined whether Stone accepted illegal benefits during his high school career and his three seasons at Kentucky. The NCAA turned up no concrete evidence of wrongdoing.

Pitino said he wants to meet with the NCAA to discuss its rules on amateurism.

"The whole policy needs to be overhauled," he said. "What was being investigated with Marvin, 90 percent of the players would be ineligible today."

On the court, Louisville's returning nucleus for next season begins with freshmen Taquan Dean and Francisco Garcia, who exceeded Pitino's expectations.

The 6-foot-7 Garcia averaged 11.2 points per game and led the team with 40 blocked shots. The 6-2 Dean averaged 8.8 points and 3.4 rebounds.

The duo combined to hit 118 of the Cardinals' school-record 272 3-point field goals.

Pitino met individually with all his players on Monday, and reminded Garcia and Dean about the "sophomore jinx" - the tendency of players to slip between their first and second seasons.

"Your head swells, new competition comes in, and you don't play as well. You embrace what you've accomplished. You can't do that," Pitino said.

He wants Dean and Garcia to hit the weight rooms by the end of this week. He's complained all season about Garcia's defense and said Dean should learn how to play the point-guard position.

Pitino said he's already decided his starting point guard will be incoming freshman Brandon Jenkins, one of three newcomers to the team next season.

The 6-3 Jenkins, from Detroit, Mich., averaged 21 points, 5.7 assists and 5.2 rebounds his junior season for Southeastern High School.

"He'll have the same results Francisco and Taquan had," Pitino said. "He's a terrific student, great work ethic, humble, but very confident."

Joining Jenkins are Nouha Diakite, a 6-10 shot-blocking and rebounding specialist from Barton (Kan.) Community College, and Nate Daniels, a high-scoring 6-8 forward from San Diego, Calif.

Pitino said he's likely to redshirt Ellis Myles, who suffered a knee injury in the Cardinals' loss to Marquette on Feb. 27.

Luke Whitehead, one of five seniors on next year's team, made up for the loss of Myles with five straight double-digit rebound efforts near the end of the season.

"When Ellis went down, we lost our rebounding," Pitino said. "He stepped up and got the rebounds for us. That's why we were able to win a conference championship as well as advance in the NCAA."

Pitino is anticipating the loss of assistant coach Mick Cronin to a head coaching position. The 31-year-old Cronin worked five years for Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins before joining Pitino's staff in April 2001.

"That's why he came to Louisville," Pitino said. "He's coached in two great programs, he's learned two different systems. That won't affect our recruiting one bit. If I thought it would, I wouldn't let him leave."

As for his own future, Pitino dispelled any rumors that he's going anywhere.

"My carousel has stopped," he said. "To set the record straight, I'm not coaching at any other place other than the University of Louisville. This is the only place I'm going to coach at, unless they get rid of me.

"This is the place for me. It's where I want to retire. I'm very content to be where I am."

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