GABRIEL | For 2nd time, Pitino coaching a team that has nothing to play for

Rick Pitino
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - The team that figured to be a handful come March; the team that just ended North Carolina’s 12-game winning streak; the team whose coach said it was capable of doing something “magical” in the NCAA tournament, instead will sit near the on-ramp for the Road to Houston, behind a road block constructed by its own school. The Louisville Cardinals will not be dancing this year.

At a news conference Friday afternoon, U of L President James Ramsey, Athletics Director Tom Jurich and Head Coach Rick Pitino, along with consultant Chuck Smrt (a former NCAA employee), announced a self-imposed ban on post-season play for the Cards, including the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament.

Seventeen years ago, he confidently strode into the conference room atop Patterson Office Tower and assured UK fans everything was going to be all right, despite the fact that NCAA sanctions had shredded the program. Some day, he told them, season tickets would be more valuable than gold. And he delivered.

But on this day, Pitino looked visibly shaken. He had wrestled for weeks with the order to avoid speaking about the toxic fallout from the NCAA investigation into the book, “Breaking Cardinal Rules.” But that was nothing compared to the moment when he had to step before his team and break their collective heart.

March Madness is why you sign up to play Division I college basketball. At Kentucky, you take aim at the hardware. Same for Louisville, Indiana, Duke, North Carolina – a handful of schools that already have won a national title and expect to win at least one more.

At other places, they hang banners not for championships, but for NCAA appearances. That’s how sacred the ground is in March and early April. The Cards won’t experience the nervous, giddy moments of Selection Sunday, the quick scramble to scout an opponent, securing tickets for friends and family and studying the bracket to find out who you have to beat to make the Final Four.

Painful times in the ‘Ville.

“It’s never easy for the people that don’t deserve it,” Pitino said of this year’s team, which includes two seniors, Damion Lee and Trey Lewis. “Damion and Trey have nothing to look forward to right now. They were hit over the head with a sledgehammer.”

Even the most optimistic of Cardinal fans had to have expected the hammer – only, this one came way, way early. Most people didn’t expect to hear from NCAA investigators until sometime after the tournament was over. But Ramsey explained that after an update on the NCAA investigation, it was reasonable to conclude that violations had occurred. So the U of L administration chose to get in front of the situation, which meant falling on its sword and taking the team with it.

“This penalty is quite substantial,” Pitino said. “It comes as a complete shock to me because I’ve been kept in the dark.”

And when it comes to an ongoing investigation, that is as it should be. Both the coach and the AD need to be kept reasonably far away, so as to avoid any appearance of potentially improper influence. But Pitino has kept himself in the dark in another area where he should be completely up to speed.

“I didn’t read the book,” he said again, near the end of the news conference, referencing the fact that a staffer who did found “inaccuracies in 30-40 percent” of it. But, he said, he still can’t fathom what compelled Katina Powell to put the tawdry tales on line, or in print.

Even if you buy the notion that Pitino didn’t know what was going on, with your job, career and reputation on the line, how could you not tear into this thing from cover to cover, page to page, first word to last? Sure, you’re bound to read things shocking and disappointing. But how do you not immerse yourself in everything your accuser has brought forward? It’s too important to shove off on a lackey, telling them to report back to you with all the bad stuff.

“I just don’t understand why, in any of this,” he said. “None of it makes sense. I know why someone robs the bank. They want the money. But none of this to this day makes any sense to me at all.”

He may have answered his own question – money. Powell didn’t rob a bank but she certainly saw an opportunity to cash in with her 15 minutes of fame. As for why her “business” relationship went so sour with U of L that she went from being what she considered a part of the recruiting process to the top of the Cardinal Nation enemies list, there are only two people who know that – Powell and the man who brought her on board, and into the on-campus dorm: former operations director Andre McGee.

And he ain’t talking. Not yet, anyway.

McGee was a part of U of L teams that played in three NCAA tournaments, twice making the Elite Eight. He was the starting point guard for the ’09 Cardinals, who won the Big East Tournament and lost to Michigan State, just one game shy of the Final Four.

And now, thanks to whatever it was that he helped make happen in Minardi Hall, the guys who followed him won’t get their shot at making a similar run. Pitino's first two Kentucky teams were banned from the post-season as well. Somehow, he found ways to motivate them.

“A team that’s totally innocent will have to through this,” Pitino said. “But I’ll get them through it. I got those Kentucky guys through it. I’ll get this group through it.”

The question is, once the investigation has concluded, will he still be around? Pitino has said he has no intention of resigning, but possible NCAA penalties may force the university to make a move it doesn’t relish making, similar to the one announced today.

And if that happens, it will be another coach who strides into a news conference, prepared to assure U of L fans that everything is going to be okay.