Pitino Building Powerhouse at Louisville

<b>ANAYLSIS</b> Rick Pitino has the "Eye of the Tiger," and he's currently on a mission to return the University of Louisville to national glory.

Rick Pitino is hot!

In fact, his Louisville Cardinal's are currently the hottest program on college basketball's recruiting trail. And despite losing high profile point guard Sebastian Telfair to the NBA Draft, Pitino kept the momentum rolling full steam ahead with 6-foot-8 Tello Palacios' commitment last week.

Palacios, a consensus top 30 prospect, reminds many of a young Jamal Mashburn. He's the cornerstone of one of the top recruiting classes in the nation, despite the unexpected loss of 6'7 Donta Smith, and possesses all the skills necessary to have a major impact on the Cardinals fortunes during the next few seasons.

And with seven scholarship players returning next season, including standouts Francisco Garcia, Taquan Dean and Ellis Myles, combined with what is almost unanimously considered one of the top ten incoming recruiting classes in the nation and the fourth-year Louisville coach has his best chance to reach the Final Four since taking over for Denny Crum in 2001.

So how could Pitino's program lose a player like Telfair (or for that matter Smith), who has already signed with agent Andy Miller and has a multi-year deal with adidas in pocket, and remain the envy of the college basketball world?

One thing is certain: It's taken lots of hard work and a whole lot of hours spent pounding the recruiting trail.

Check the recruiting lists of the nation's top high school juniors for the answer to that question. What you'll find is Louisville being mentioned at or near the top of the list by an extremely high percentage of the country's top players. Same goes for the sophomore class, too.

Following a disappointing finish to the 2003-04 season, some locally criticized Pitino's first few recruiting hauls, noting that many of his junior college signees hadn't panned out like needed. Apparently, Pitino is motivated to prove any doubters wrong.

Doing it again (Kamenish)
"After the loss to Xavier he wanted to start next season right now," a source close to the program and familiar with Pitino said. "He will work himself into exhaustion to succeed and get this program where he wants it. He's got the eye of the tiger and he's on a mission."

"When he got here, he felt that recruiting junior college kids was the quickest and easiest way to get the program back on its feet," the source continued. "Sometimes he does things so quickly because his desire to succeed is off the charts. He's such a loyal guy that he's felt he's let some people down. But you're seeing the results of his efforts right now."

You've got to marvel not only at Pitino's insatiable desire and work ethic, but the results that seem almost a foregone conclusion at this point. There's no secret to where success on the court stems. Almost without question, it begins on the recruiting trail.

That's where Pitino excels, in the pursuit of talented prospects, and he's once again proving he's one of college basketball's top recruiters.

In just three years, the former University of Kentucky and Boston Celtics coach has taken Louisville from the outhouse to the penthouse. It wasn't long ago the Cardinals struggled to land others leftovers; Now, Louisville is truly a national player on the recruiting trail, able to interest and sign the top talent from all corners of the United States.

Just look at the recent list of players who have committed to Pitino's program this year for proof. 6'9 forward/center Brain Johnson hails from Washington, D.C., shooting guard Lorrenzo Wade arrives from Las Vegas, 7'1 center Clarence Holloway, currently a junior, hails from the Windy City, and most recently, the multi-skilled Palacios from Colombia via New York.

Want further proof Louisville can now go anywhere and land virtually any player in the country? Take a look at the underclassmen that list the Cardinals either as their leader or in their current top three. 5'10 point guard Andre McGee (Moreno Valley, CA), 6'5 guard Terrence Williams (Seattle), 6'10 center Brayden Bell (Salt Lake City), 6'8 small forward Chad Millard (New Hampshire), 6'5 shooting guard David Huertas (Jacksonville), 6'1 point guard Tony Freeman (Chicago), 6'6 forward Marcus Johnson (Los Angeles), 5'11 point guard Byron Eaton (Dallas), 6'7 small forward Brandon Rush (Durham, NC) and 6'7 power forward Jamal Boykin (Los Angeles).

So what makes Pitino such an effective recruiter besides his lengthy track record of success and the long list of players he's sent on to fortune in the NBA?

"When he talks, recruits take note and listen," Pitino's confidant explained. "When he's in a recruits home he has such a big advantage because he's a great communicator and motivator. He gets paid a lot of money to give talks all over the country and that gives him such an edge in recruiting. That's just his gig."

The importance of Telfair's signing with Louisville last November also can't be discounted as a major factor in the Cardinals' current recruiting fortunes. One of the most talented and recognized prospects in the nation the past few seasons, Telfair's decision to choose Louisville signaled to the nation's top prospects that ‘The Ville," was the place to be and put Louisville squarely back on the national radar. Telfair made Louisville popular once again…almost as if other recruits now say ‘if it's good enough for Sebastian, it's good enough for me.'

But credit can't go to Pitino alone. Louisville's Reggie Theus, Vince Taylor and Kevin Willard have to be mentioned in any conversation about the top assistant coaches in the business.

The nation's finest coaching staff?
Left to Right: Taylor, Theus, Willard, Pitino (Kamenish)

If you've noticed a heavy west coast flavor to the Cardinals current recruiting list, you should know that Theus, a former UNLV and NBA standout, is largely responsible for opening those doors. Likewise, Taylor, like Theus, will be a head coach before long and has positioned Louisville well in the midwest and down south. And don't forget Willard. Not only does he have one of the brightest young minds in college basketball, but talk to some of the prospects and the parents that he's involved with for any length of time and you'll get plenty of praise for the youngest member of Pitino's coaching staff.

So it's easy to see why Louisville is so hot right now. Combine one of the top coaches in the history of the sport, with capable and hard working lieutenant's and success is virtually inevitable.

With so much success currently on the recruiting trail and even brighter prospects for the class of 2005, all that seemingly remains are lots of wins and some deep runs in the NCAA Tournament during the next few seasons.

And there should be little question about this fact. Give Rick Pitino the top talent to work with and he'll mold them into one of the most feared units in the college game. He's done it before and he's getting ready to do it again!

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