UNC coach Roy Williams on Louisville postseason ban
North Carolina coach Roy Williams has been there. He has been in the same position that Louisville coach Rick Pitino found himself in on Friday, having to go before his players and tell them that they weren't going to be able to play in the NCAA tournament because of a postseason ban.
Pitino did that on Friday after Louisville decided to self-impose a postseason ban this season amid an NCAA investigation involving the use of strippers and prostitutes in the team's recruiting. Pitino has maintained that he had no knowledge of the alleged improprieties.
The NCAA investigation at Louisville, meanwhile, appeared to be fading into the background. And then the school announced the postseason ban, which instantly became the biggest story in college basketball on Friday.
Before a regularly-scheduled press conference on Friday, Williams had been following on television the story at Louisville. Williams' word to describe it: “Sad.”
“Sad, sad, sad,” Williams said. “I've been there. My first year as a head coach (at Kansas) I had to bring my team together Halloween night and tell them that the NCAA had just put us on probation, we were not going to go to the NCAA tournament.”
That was in 1988, during Williams' first months on the job at Kansas. He'd gone there from UNC, where he'd been an assistant coach under Dean Smith.
Williams grew emotional while he reflected on the postseason ban he served at Kansas, which was being punished for violations it committed under Larry Brown, who'd led the Jayhawks to the national championship several months earlier at the end of his fifth and final season.
“I had some great kids on that team that wanted to show people they could still be a pretty good basketball team without Danny Manning, Chris Piper, and it was one of the hardest meetings I've ever had,” Williams said. “So I feel for Rick (Pitino), because had two guys particularly (who) came there from Cleveland State and Drexel that wanted to see if they could be on a team that'd make a run during the tournament.
“And Rick and I talked about it for 30 seconds before the game started on Monday night and I just feel for him, having to bring that kind of message to the team. I feel for those kids. It's just like I say – it's one of the saddest things.”
One of the final highlights of Louisville's season, it turns out, could be its 71-65 victory against UNC last Monday night. The victory moved the Cardinals into second place in the ACC, and they looked like a team that would contend for the ACC tournament championship and one that could be a factor in the NCAA tournament, as well.
But now the Cardinals won't have that chance. The news was especially difficult given that Louisville's two best players, Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, are seniors who transferred into the program after last season but before the revelations emerged of potential violations. Lee and Lewis had never played in the NCAA tournament, and they won't have the chance now.
Williams on Friday easily recalled members of his first Kansas team who missed out on the tournament that season. There was Milt Newton, a senior and captain of Williams' first team. Newton is now the general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
There was Kevin Pritchard, now the general manager of the Indiana Pacers. And Mark Randall, who in 1991 became the Chicago Bulls' first round draft pick. Pritchard and Randall, at least, had a chance to get back to the NCAA tournament, and they did.
Lee and Lewis, the two Louisville seniors, won't have that opportunity.
“It's a hard, hard meeting, and it's frustrating,” Willisams said of having to tell a team that it wouldn't play in the postseason.
What transpired at Louisville on Friday reminded Williams of UNC's own NCAA troubles. The school continues to go through the slow-moving NCAA investigative process, and the conclusion of the case at UNC still could be six months away, or more.
“It's frustrating for me right now because I'm so disappointed that we don't have any finalization to our thing,” Williams said. “I'm very relieved or cautiously relieved or whatever you want to put it – I don't care. I'm to the point that I don't really care what anybody else thinks what I say.
“But I say cautiously relieved … that we have no allegations in men's basketball. But still, we've been punished for three years already. I wish there was some way that there could be a speedier (resolution) but our people are trying to do the best they can do.
“The NCAA's probably doing things the way they do them. And it's been very frustrating for me. But the gist of this whole conversation should be what I feel for Louisville's players and coaches that didn't have anything to do with that.”