In college basketball, your reputation is your reputation until you do something in March to change it. This is the task at hand for Tony Bennett and Virginia.
“If he loses this one, they’ll kill him.”
The words were so jarring that they demanded everyone in the area search for what had prompted them. A small television sitting on top of an out of place stool in the middle of the sporting goods store revealed the source.
Kentucky, the biggest, baddest team in college basketball, was jogging into the locker room leading lowly 16 seed San Jose State by a mere six points at halftime. It was the first game of what would ultimately become one of the most dominant NCAA Tournament runs the sport has ever seen. At this moment, though, it was something else.
The sporting good store employee standing next to the one who had served up the murder prediction laughed.
“I’m not joking. If they choke again, and they do it like this, they will kill him before he makes it back to Lexington.”
In 1996, this was Rick Pitino’s reputation to a healthy contingent of folks within the state of Kentucky, and to a decent amount of others outside the Commonwealth. Never mind that the man had resurrected one of college basketball’s most storied programs from the lowest point in its history. It mattered little that the overwhelming favorite to win the national championship had started the decade hampered by three years of probation, a two-year postseason ban, and a one-year ban from playing any games on television.
In the minds of Kentucky fans, step one for Pitino was clearing those hurdles. Barreling through them was ok too. Step two was returning the program to its rightful spot atop the college basketball world. Patience with …read more