Louisville expecting ‘robust’ year despite federal probe

University of Louisville interim President Greg Postel speaks during a press conference Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, in Louisville, Ky. Louisville announced Wednesday that they have placed basketball coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich on administrative leave amid a federal bribery investigation.  Jurich is on paid leave, while Pitino is on unpaid leave.  (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) Louisville interim President Greg Postel doubled down on his belief that the Cardinals men’s basketball team can win this year despite his removal of coach Rick Pitino and the possible contributions of a prized recruit in the wake of a nationwide federal bribery investigation.

Postel’s said Thursday that he expects the Cardinals to have a ”robust” season.

He placed the Hall of Fame coach on unpaid administrative leave Wednesday after Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal probe. Athletic director Tom Jurich was put on paid administrative leave.

The president hopes to have information on an interim coach before practice begins Friday, and remains upbeat about Louisville’s prospects on the court.

”We’re intending to have a robust men’s basketball season,” Postel said Thursday after testifying before a legislative budget subcommittee in Frankfort, Kentucky. ”I don’t see why that would not be the case. We have an excellent group of players and they are the ones that play the games. So I don’t know why we wouldn’t have a basketball season.”

Postel made a similar confident declaration on Wednesday in announcing Pitino’s status.

But that might be easier said than done after the sudden coaching change for a program used to continuity and stability.

Pitino, 65, went 416-143 in 16 years with the Cardinals and won the 2013 NCAA championship. His Hall of Fame predecessor, Denny Crum, was on the Louisville bench for 30 years and won two national titles.

While Pitino continues to maintain he has done nothing wrong – saying ”the rush to judgment is regrettable” in a statement issued Wednesday through his attorney – Pitino is out, maybe permanently. Pitino is not named in the federal documents, but his attorney Steve Pence has said Louisville ”effectively fired” Pitino.

Pitino is due to earn nearly $5.1 million this season and $38.7 million in base annual salary through 2025-26 in a contract extension signed in June 2015.

However, even if the coach was able to return to the bench, he might miss games.

Pitino and Louisville are appealing NCAA penalties for a sex scandal. Pitino was suspended for five Atlantic Coast Conference games, while Louisville was placed on four years’ probation and ordered to vacate victories and return shared tournament revenue.

Right now it all adds up to the Cardinals tipping off the season without Pitino, or 6-foot-7 Brian Bowen. The freshman was not named in federal documents, but details in the criminal complaint make it clear investigators were referring to Bowen. Postel also did not single out Postel, but said Wednesday that one student-athlete has been informed he will not practice or play for the university until the investigation is resolved.

With the shadow of Pitino looming nearby, the interim coach will inherit a stiff challenge.

Former Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio, an ESPN analyst who has broadcast ACC games, believes that naming a temporary replacement from the current staff might help maintain familiarity and trust for the Cardinals.

”You have to find a way to keep things together, then get these kids moving in the right direction after the guy that they came to play for,” Gaudio said. ”Those shoes are difficult at times to fill. Coming in there, you have to be true to yourself, you have to show respect for your predecessor.

”But then, you have to make the team your own.”

Louisville’s upside is having several veterans back from a squad that went 25-9, along with one of Pitino’s strongest recruiting classes. Pitino raved about his roster’s potential a few weeks ago and seemed confident the team could go deep in the postseason, possibly return to the Final Four.

The Cardinals’ leading scorer Donovan Mitchell declared for the NBA draft along with center Mangok Mathiang and forward Jaylen Johnson. But they return point guard Quentin Snider (12.4 points, 4.1 assists per game), junior forward Deng Adel (12.1 points, 4.5 rebounds) and 7-footer Anas Mahmoud (4.0 rebounds, 2.1 blocks). Bigger roles are also expected for sophomore forward V.J. King (6-6) and 6-10 Ray Spalding.

”They have shot-blocking with Mahmoud and Spalding and as much length as anybody in the country,” Gaudio said. ”This is a long team with rim protectors, and they should be very good.”

Louisville also has added length in 6-11 Malik Williams, 6-9 forward Lance Thomas and 6-8 Jordan Nwora.

If winning can cover up a big stink, as the sports cliche says, the interim coach will have to do a lot of it to get fans focused on what is happening on the court and not all the distractions off it.

Associated Press writer Adam Beam in Frankfort, Kentucky, contributed to this story.