Did Duncan help Cards claim title?

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By Josh Cook

Watching Tim Duncan do work in the NBA Finals has made me think about the Big Fundamental’s impact on the University of Louisville men’s basketball program.

On my stat sheet, Cardinal fans should give Timmy an assist for UofL’s 2013 national championship.

To understand why I say that, follow me back to the summer of 1997 for a moment. Rick Pitino had just left the University of Kentucky program, which was coming off back-to-back NCAA championship game appearances, for the greener pastures of the Boston Celtics. One of the big reasons why he took the job, in addition the mega-money that Red Auerbach & Co threw at him, was the fact that the C’s had the best odds (they had the second-worst record in the NBA’s 1996-97 season and two lottery picks that year) of getting the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. Duncan, who had just finished his career at Wake Forest, was the no-doubt top choice.

But things always don’t go according to plan.

The Spurs, who had finished with the league’s third-worst record that season (David Robinson was injured for most of it), won the NBA’s Draft Lottery and the No. 1 pick. Meanwhile Boston had to settle for Nos. 3 and 6. Pitino, who was also the team’s general manager, used those selections on Chauncey Billups and former UK standout Ron Mercer. Billups lasted 51 games with the C’s before Pitino traded him. Mistake. Billups has been a very, very consistent player in his 15-year career (he, Duncan and Tracy McGrady are the only players from that draft still in the league), which was highlighted by his leading the Detroit Pistons to the title and earning NBA Finals MVP honors in 2004. Mercer went on to a so-so career that was highlighted by his making the All-Rookie first team in 1998 and averaging nearly 20 points with the Chicago Bulls in 2000-01.

Duncan, meanwhile, has gone on to become arguably the best power forward in NBA history, leading the Spurs to four titles so far (with a fifth looking like a distinct possibility after Tuesday night’s nuclear bombing of the Miami Heat).

Then there’s Pitino. He lasted 2½ years with the Celtics. The highlights of his time there were beating the two-time defending champion Chicago Bulls in his first game and his “Larry Bird’s not walking through that door, Kevin McHale’s not walking through that door...” tirade that went viral before it was called viral.

After he left there Pitino took a little time off before Tom Jurich lured him to Louisville to replace Denny Crum.

But what if the Celtics had won the lottery that year? What if they had gotten Duncan?

Although I don’t think the Celtics would have four more title banners – Pitino had a history of rash personnel decisions (see Billups’ trade) during his time in Boston – it’s conceivable that they could have won one or two. The big reason why I don’t think the Celtics would have four more titles is that I don’t believe the organization would’ve had as much success in the draft as San Antonio, which astutely selected Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, and I think Pitino would have probably tried to surround Duncan with a bevy of his former players at UK (something which he tried, in vain, in Boston).

There is one thing I’m pretty sure of, though, Pitino wouldn’t be the coach at UofL. However, I doubt he’d still be with the Celtics, either. My guess is he’d either be coaching another NBA team (Nets? Lakers? Knicks?), or somewhere like UCLA. So without Pitino I think there’s very little, or no, chance that the Cards cut down the nets in Atlanta in early April.

Over the years Jurich has indicated that if he would not have gotten Pitino he likely would’ve replaced Crum with Larry Eustachy, who at the time was a successful coach at Iowa State (he was national coach of the year in 2000).

Now there’s no way of knowing if Eustachy would’ve gotten into the same type of trouble at UofL that he did while at ISU. In April of 2003 pictures surfaced of Eustachy’s kissing several young women and holding a beer at a party near the University of Missouri campus hours after losing to the Tigers. He was later suspended and eventually resigned in May of that year. Maybe Eustachy wouldn’t have gotten into the same type of trouble, or maybe it would’ve been at Fourth Street Live! instead of an off-campus party, we’ll never know. One thing I’m pretty sure of, though, is that he wouldn’t have the success (three Final Fours, one national title) that Pitino has had at Louisville. Heck, the Cards may still be in Conference USA and struggling to make the NCAA Tournament every year if Eustachy, or someone else, is the coach (ironically, UofL beat Eustachy’s Colorado State team in the third round of this year’s NCAA Tournament on its way to the title).

Of course that’s just speculation, as a lot of this is, but it’s just fun (for me at least) to hypothesize the big effect that Duncan has had on the UofL basketball program.