Louisville coach Rick Pitino knows better than most what buttons he needs to press to motivate his players. His tactics may sometimes seem drastic -- the hyperbole that comes with it certainly does -- but more often than not, they work.
Pitino took away Preston Knowles' access to the team practice facility the summer before his senior season in 2010-11. He could no longer use the hand reader to enter the gym and work out whenever he was so inclined.
Knowles had to practice in the student activity center, where he could feel the stares and hear the whispers of every student who passed by who knew he was suspended. Knowles would later say he was humbled and embarrassed by having to work out with regular students.
That experience helped give Knowles the attitude makeover Pitino was aiming for. Knowles became the team captain who helped create the atmosphere of unselfishness, which Pitino would brand Louisville First Cards Forever, that laid the groundwork for the Cardinals' current run.
Pitino tried a more subtle approach last season with Behanan after he said the Cincinnati native spent too much of the summer of 2012 celebrating the trip to the Final Four. Behanan had maturity issues that Pitino wanted to address, so Behanan began the season suspended for Louisville's exhibition games and was forced to come off the bench in the season opener against Manhattan. The real punishment was Pitino taking away what he knew Behanan enjoyed second only to being on the court.
Pitino banned Behanan from speaking to the media. Initially it was supposed to last until the second semester began, but Pitino ended it early after Behanan’s 20-point, seven-rebound performance in the win over Kentucky, which happened to be the final nonconference game.
I’m not privy to the transgressions that landed Behanan an indefinite suspension on Oct. 17. Past times when the 6-foot-6 junior has run afoul of Pitino’s rules, it has always been more mischievous than malicious. But I imagine keeping Behanan from doing interviews, simply running him extra in practices or taking away his position in the starting lineup just wouldn’t create the kind of behavioral change Pitino wanted.
This time, he had to grab Behanan’s attention, and that was only by taking away what he loved most.
No other player on Louisville’s roster has openly expressed his dream to play in the NBA like Behahan has from the moment he arrived in Louisville. Behahan came back to school to improve in the several areas NBA scouts are still skeptical about regarding his game. Obviously, he can’t make an impression if he’s not playing.
By Pitino announcing Behahan's suspension publicly in the media and speaking in pessimistic terms about his return (that it was “possible, not probable”), there’s no doubt in my mind that Behanan felt an urgency that he might not have otherwise realized had the suspension been dealt with differently.
Pitino said the stipulation for Behanan’s return was 30 straight days of staying in line with the team rules. Although it hasn’t quite been that long since the suspension was announced, Pitino said he was surprised by how great it went and announced Behanan could return to the lineup tomorrow against Hofstra.
Before the season is over, it’s still possible Behanan could revert to old habits and break the rules again. But I don’t think that’s probable.