Second national title secured, Kentucky Derby next for Louisville's Pitino

The notion is preposterous: Luke Hancock astride a horse in the Kentucky Derby. He weighs two bills, for goodness sakes, and stands 6-foot-6. He's as much a jockey as I am an NFL left tackle.

But given Rick Pitino's recent roll, does anyone doubt that he could put Hancock in the irons next month and win the Run for the Roses?

With Hancock the most outstanding player, Pitino's Louisville Cardinals captured college basketball's national championship late Monday night with a gripping 82-76 victory over Michigan at the Georgia Dome.

This on the same day the Basketball Hall of Fame announced Pitino as part of its 2013 enshrinement class. This two days after Goldencents, a colt Pitino co-owns, emerged as a serious Kentucky Derby contender by winning the Santa Anita Derby. This five days after the University of Minnesota hired Pitino's son, Richard, as its head coach.


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Doubting Pitino these days is like betting against Nate Silver, Daniel Day-Lewis and LeBron James.

"You know, a lot of times when you get to the Final Four, you get to a championship, the game's not always great, not always pretty," Pitino said during his news conference. "This was a great college basketball game.

"They are a tremendous offensive team. Fortunately for us, when we started this tournament, and Luke started playing a lot more minutes, we became a great half-court offensive basketball team. And tonight was as good as it gets."

The irony there is that Louisville, which closed the season with 16 consecutive victories after a five-overtime loss at Notre Dame, thrives on defense. The Cardinals pressure the ball baseline-to-baseline, create bushels of turnovers and harass opponents into quick, ill-advised shots.

But Michigan, as it showed in a round-of-32 thumping of VCU, is unfazed by defensive pressure. Monday, the Wolverines committed only 12 turnovers and shot 52.1 percent, best of any Louisville opponent this season, best of any championship-game loser since Georgetown's 54.7 percent against Villanova in 1985.

Most striking, Michigan wasn't making routine shots. The Wolverines, chiefly national player of the year Trey Burke and obscure reserve Spike Albrecht, were making contested jumpers from outrageous distances.

Enter Hancock, the type of flat-footed, 3-point specialist you'd expect to find in Europe.

Hancock transferred to Louisville from George Mason two years ago when Patriots coach Jim Larranaga left for the University of Miami. A graduate of Roanoke's Hidden Valley High, he prepped for a year at Hargrave Military Academy, yet still only drew scholarship offers from the likes of George Mason and Toledo.

When Hancock decided to leave Mason, he considered Virginia and Virginia Tech. But his coach at Hargrave, Kevin Keatts, joined Pitino's Louisville staff in 2011. Case closed.

With his critically ill father in the stands Monday, Hancock scored 22 points off the bench and made 5-of-5 attempts from beyond the 3-point arc. Four came late in the first half as the Cardinals rallied from 12 down to trail by only one at halftime.

"If I can step in and hit an open shot, or just help out, I do," said Hancock, a junior and the first non-starter ever voted the Final Four's MOP.

Like native son Muhammad Ali, this Louisville team could take a punch. The Cardinals trailed Syracuse by 16 in the Big East tournament final and won by 17. They erased a 12-point, second-half deficit against Wichita State on Saturday and won by four, Hancock scoring 20 points.

"This team is one of the most together, toughest, hard-nosed teams," Pitino said. "We played a great team the other night in Wichita State and got outplayed for about 34 minutes of the game. But this team, being down never bothers us. They just come back."

Monday's victory makes Pitino the first coach to win national basketball championships at different schools. He guided Kentucky to the 1996 title, his roster stacked with NBA players such as Ron Mercer, Antoine Walker, Tony Delk and Walter McCarty.

"Well, '96, I just had to control the egos and understand, It's not about the pros, it's about winning a championship," Pitino said. "I had a great team, one of the best teams in the history of college basketball."

This championship was more the product of coaching than recruiting, more a tribute to team chemistry than talent aggregation.

In 2014-15, Louisville joins the ACC. Barring retirements, the conference then will have four active Hall of Fame coaches in Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, North Carolina's Roy Williams, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim and Pitino. But only Pitino owns a Derby horse.

Bet Goldencents across the board.

David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/ teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP

 

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