Louisville basketball gets first look at life post-Pitino

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville basketball is a quieter phenomenon now.

A quieter crowd showed up to watch a quieter team led by a quieter coach in the season opener Sunday against George Mason. The Cardinals trailed much of the way and led by just a point with five minutes left before pulling away for a 72-61 victory. Other than the uniforms and the fight song, there wasn’t much normal about the afternoon.

It was, in sum, a surreal experience watching a program that had been plugged into a prodigiously powerful personality for 16 years abruptly transition to alternative energy. In the post-Pitino nuclear winter that has enveloped Louisville, these were the first tentative steps into Whatever Comes Next.

The announced attendance at the 22,000-seat Yum Center was 18,304, about 3,000 fewer fans than showed up last year to see the Cardinals open against Evansville. Some fans are angry at the scandal-ridden state of the program, some are beaten down, some are more determined than ever to support the hometown team. The net result was fewer butts in seats for a Top 20 team’s first game.

And different butts in some choice seats. The section behind the home bench and on the front row across from the bench, once thick with Rick Pitino family members and cronies, were occupied by many new faces.

A squad led by emotionally reserved veterans Quentin Snider, Anas Mahmoud and Ray Spalding seemed flat for much of the game. The Cardinals needed the fiery spark of freshman guard Darius Perry and the clutch shooting of Perry and fellow freshman Jordan Nwora to pull out Louisville’s 14th straight season-opening victory. Before the late surge, there were times when it seemed like everyone was waiting for Pitino to reappear and manically browbeat the Cards into dominance.

Louisville interim head coach David Padgett talks to forward Anas Mahmoud during the second half of Louisville’s win over George Mason on Sunday. (AP)

On the sideline, 32-year-old emergency head coach David Padgett projected a drastically different aura than his Hall of Fame predecessor. A mere six weeks into a job he never expected to have, Padgett hasn’t exactly had time to develop an in-game persona — but it will be a change from the whirling Italian dervish of years past.

The 6-foot-11 Padgett is a foot taller than Pitino and far less caustic in his commentary. He is more prone to offering encouragement than blasts of criticism, even when things are not proceeding smoothly.

“He’s more calm,” Mahmoud said. “He stays more composed.”

Mahmoud diplomatically added that there is nothing wrong with yelling and screaming. None of the Cardinals were celebrating the departure of the old boss, but they also seem happy with the new boss. At least as long as he gets results.

Padgett is 1-0 as a head coach, but he acknowledged that the hours leading up to the game did not pass easily. He immersed himself in college football Saturday night, slept for a couple of hours, then began waiting for tipoff. That came at 2 p.m., but by the time it arrived he said it felt like 9 p.m.

“I think our guys were anxious,” Padgett said, and the same went for him.

Padgett did find himself copying one Pitino trademark, the foot stomp to get his players’ attention. But incessantly coaching every dribble and every defensive slide was not his thing, nor does it appear to be the style of new assistant coaches Trent Johnson, Greg Paulus and R.J. Evans. (Johnson and Paulus are so new to the program that they aren’t even in the hastily redone Louisville media guide. The entire staff is pulling this thing together on the fly, a rush-job chemistry experiment.)

When the Cardinals staggered out of the gate against George Mason, missing shots in bulk and trailing most of the first half, Padgett remained upbeat and refrained from barking at his players. How would Pitino have handled such a start?

“Coach P would have killed us,” leading scorer Deng Adel said with a laugh.

Louisville basketball will be less of a show, less of a spectacle, less Broadway entertainment, without Pitino. The constant blasts of charisma, humor and anger will not be replaceable. The sideline genius likely will not be replaceable either, although fans already have begun the historical revisionism that comes with a bitter separation. (Samples: Pitino didn’t let freshmen play, he didn’t coach offense, he didn’t recruit shooters — yet somehow he won 416 games as the coach of the Cardinals.)

But the late-career scandals and melodrama won’t be missed. It’s truly sad that Pitino cannot get a hero’s send-off from the Yum Center crowd, but that’s the position the coach put himself in.

As of Sunday, there is no mention of Pitino anywhere within the arena seating area. The only tangible evidence of his time at Louisville hangs from the rafters: Final Four banners from 2005 and ’12, and the national championship banner from 2013. And that title banner should be coming down soon, forfeited as part of the penalties for the stripper scandal that landed the program on probation before the latest scandal cost Pitino his job.

In Rick Pitino’s absence, Louisville moves tentatively forward into an uncertain future. The only certainty is that it will be quieter — for better and for worse.

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