Pitino has the rep, now has to prove it

JOHN EISENBERG

April 03, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

NEW ORLEANS -- He is the one with the career set on fast-forward speed. The one with the reputation as the best coach of his generation. The one with the goods this weekend, the team to beat in this Final Four.

He is the one with the look to look, the walk to walk, the pub to rub. He is the one with two autobiographies and a restaurant by age 40, with the perfect style for the modern game, with the unfettered worship of a basketball-mad state.

He is Rick Pitino, and he is lacking only one item: a championship.

Let's be blunt here. He has two more autobiographies than championships. Maybe he is too young to be held up to such a tall measuring stick, but he hasn't won anything yet, at least not anything to propel him to the top shelf alongside Gen. Bob, Dean and the other jut-jawed icons.

Pitino has won an NBA division title, a Southeastern Conference regular-season title, two SEC tournament titles, an NCAA tournament regional title, a coach of the year award in three different college seasons . . . but none of the biggies. No NBA title. No NCAA title. His two Knicks teams got knocked out of the playoffs in the first and second rounds. He made it to the 1987 Final Four with underdog Providence and lost to Syracuse.

No one doubts that he is among the hottest talents on any sideline anywhere -- this furious, pressing, three-point-shooting Kentucky team is sufficient evidence. But there comes a time when a coach must match his hype with accomplishment. That time, for Pitino, is now.

Enough with the books and the restaurant and the strut. As they say on the playgrounds of Pitino's native New York, let's see what he's got.

He built his legend in no-lose situations, making instant winners out of teams that were either dead (Boston University), downtrodden (Providence, Knicks) or destroyed by probation (Kentucky). He has an obvious talent for such turnarounds, but there was never any pressure to win a championship, not when he was coming from so far down.

Now, there is pressure. As Dickie V might say, bay-bee, it is time for Amadeus to deliver the symphony.

After a 23-3 regular season, Pitino's Wildcats have won seven straight postseason games by an average of 30 points. Their timing is perfect. They got hot at the right time. They're so hot right now even they can't believe it, much as they try to low-key it.

"They've been just sensational," said Michigan coach Steve Fisher, whose team takes its swat at the Wildcats tonight in the TTC second game of the semifinal doubleheader. "They make three-pointers like free throws."

In a Final Four brimming with talent and tradition, a real heavyweight tournament -- Kansas, North Carolina, Michigan and Kentucky total 10 championships, 37 Final Four appearances and almost 6,000 wins -- the Wildcats stand out as the team that should win.

They're more consistent than Michigan, more talented than Kansas and more versatile than Carolina. They have the next Karl Malone in Jamal Mashburn, and a tall, quick congregation of supporters buzzing around shooting threes and forming a monster press.

It means that Pitino is finally working with a weight on his shoulder. It is his year to win. Such an opportunity arises rarely, even for the best coach. Players leave, chemistry fizzes, timing isn't as perfect. Mashburn will be a Dallas Maverick next year, or maybe a Bullet. The Wildcats will be plenty good, but not the same.

How a coach responds at such a critical intersection, when it all comes together at the right moment, can do much to define his career. The first law of being a coaching legend is: Seize the moment, or else.

Duke came through last year, and Mike Kryzyewski doesn't have to win another game for the rest of his life. Dean Smith took 20 years to win his first and only title at Carolina, and he's still hearing about it.

The team that should win often does not. Guy Lewis and Houston never should have lost to North Carolina State. John Thompson and Georgetown never should have lost to Villanova. Jerry Tarkanian's best UNLV team never should have lost to Duke. Terry Holland certainly should have finagled a title out of Ralph Sampson.

Now along come these Wildcats, the best of a strong Final Four class, and it's up to Pitino, Amadeus himself, to show that he can do more than rebuild. It sounds ridiculously simple, but the best coaches are the ones who win championships. Pitino's hype infers that he is one of the best. Let's see if it's true.

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