Since Pitino took over the Cardinals program in March 2001, nine players that the Louisville coach recruited and signed have transferred out of the U of L program. That doesn't even take into consideration four other prospects (Sebastian Telfair, Donta Smith, Amir Johnson and Clarence Holloway) Pitino signed to national letters of intent that never even stepped foot on campus.
That's an alarming rate of attrition for a program that went just 21-13 last season, finished near the bottom of the Big East Conference and missed the NCAA Tournament for the second time in Pitino's five seasons.
Now, Brian Johnson, who received a release from his scholarship Tuesday afternoon, has added his name to the list. A former high school All-American, the 6'9, 245 pound Johnson was expected to play a key role as a sophomore in a Cardinals frontcourt that got pushed around last season.
So why would a player who figured to rotate at center with 6'11 David Padgett this coming season pack his bags and leave U of L less than a month before the start of the fall semester?
Johnson's uncle, Ron Ingram, was quoted in the Courier-Journal Tuesday that there were "several reasons" why his nephew was heading back to his Maryland home this week to contemplate his transfer options.
Surely playing time and his role on the team this season played a factor. But what are the other reasons Ingram alluded? Are there bigger issues at play here?
Don't forget, Johnson's transfer comes on the heels of Chad Millard's rather strange – and sudden - departure earlier this summer. One minute Millard was trotted out as a university spokesperson at Cardinal Caravan stops, the next he sought and was granted his release.
So what's going on within Pitino's program? Why have so many players decided to bolt from Louisville during his tenure? Are there internal problems? Has Pitino's system become too demanding for today's stars? Or is Johnson's decision to transfer simply a matter of a player trying to find a better fit to showcase his talent?
Johnson received his release on
Tuesday from Louisville.
Regardless of the answers to those questions, both Johnson and Millard's decisions to leave certainly raise some very important questions.
Surely playing time issues aren't the only reasons Pitino's players have hit the door and not looked back.
Take Lorrenzo Wade, for example.
As a freshman, the 6'5 Wade played a key role off the bench during Louisville's run to the Final Four. When Francisco Garcia jumped to the NBA, Wade figured to step in and start at small forward last season.
That didn't happen. Instead, Wade left Louisville shortly after the 2004-05 season, taking his vast athletic talents to San Diego State. Why?
There's little doubt the high volume of transfers, combined with the NBA no-shows, have negatively affected the stability of Pitino's program. If you need evidence, consider the 2005-06 season.
Coming off a 33-5 record and Final Four appearance, Pitino's program took a dramatic step backward last season. Sure Pitino lost four key contributors off that fantastic Final Four team, but because of recruiting miscues and transfers the Louisville coach had no other choice than to rely on an inexperienced cast that included seven freshmen.
The lesson: Inexperienced team + Big East opposition = NIT.
The question: Can any program, regardless of the resume of the head coach, win big in the Big East – and the NCAA Tournament - given the kind of turnover Pitino has endured at Louisville?
Certainly, Pitino has had a difficult time building an experienced roster at Louisville because of the high volume of transfers. Johnson and Millard both gained valuable experience last season and figured to be improved players and contributors off the bench in 2006-07. Now, though, Pitino again will have to rely on freshmen to take up the slack. That's usually not a recipe for success in a league as tough and demanding as the Big East, as evidenced by last season's 6-10 conference record.
What's most disturbing about Johnson's decision to leave is that he provided something Louisville lacked last season – a physical rebounding presence in the frontcourt. Though he saw limited action as a redshirt freshman, Johnson came on toward the end of last season, recording two double-digit rebounding efforts in the NIT, including a 13 point, 13 rebound effort against Clemson.
Perhaps, Johnson's case is clear cut and straight forward. Maybe, Johnson simply believed players like Derrick Caracter and Terrance Farley were going to receive the bulk of the reserve minutes next season behind starters Juan Palacios and David Padgett and figured his best bet was to find a new home. But that doesn't make much sense considering the glowing reports coming out of the SAC this summer regarding Johnson's recent fine play.
According to those reports, Johnson looked to be in great shape and finally appeared near full strength. That's to say nothing of how he rebounded and scored at ease around the basket this summer during pick up games.
No matter the exact reasons for Johnson's departure, the large number of players that have left Pitino's program raise important questions. Were these players simply not happy at U of L? If not, why? Were there other issues besides playing time that led Chad Millard, Bryan Harvey and Brian Johnson to seek refuge elsewhere since the end of last season?
Only Pitino, and his players – current and former – know those answers.
One thing is certain, though. Because of the revolving door on Floyd Street, Pitino, nor Louisville, will reap the benefits of the experience Johnson gained last season. Instead, some other coach, at some other school, will.
That's become a disturbing trend at U of L lately.
Pitino's Transfers: Carlos Hurt, Brandon Bender, Preleu Davis, Nouha Diakite, Nate Daniels, Lorrenzo Wade, Bryan Harvey, Chad Millard, Brian Johnson.