When it came to pondering candidates to replace departing assistant coach Marvin Menzies, most observers of University of Louisville  basketball would admit that the name Walter McCarty never appeared on their radar screens.
However, now that McCarty, a former Kentucky hoop player and 10-year NBA veteran has joined Rick Pitino’s U of L staff, the move looks like it could be a stroke of genius.
Menzies was named head coach at New Mexico State, replacing former Cards’ assistant Reggie Theus who left to coach the NBA’s Sacramento Kings.
McCarty, 33, (pictured left) has never formally coached at any level. He has been too busy helping UK earn the 1996 NCAA Championship and pursuing a productive career in the NBA. But the Evansville, Ind., native does offer a unique set of qualifications that could be just what Pitino’s talented Cards need.
“Walt is the consummate team player,” said Pitino. “He was always just about winning. His enthusiasm is infectious.”
Logically, McCarty should have instant credibility with his new team. He’s a graduate of the Pitino system, understands what the players are going through and knows precisely what the head coach wants and why.
“Right now, what’s important is that our guys make good decisions, listen and do what’s asked of them,” McCarty explained. “As players at UK, we trusted Coach P so much. We had to do what he asked, work hard each and every day, and try to make the right decisions. If our players here will do that, then I think everything will fall into place.”
Second, his transition with the rest of the staff should be smooth and swift, especially since he’s known the two other full-time assistants – Steve Masiello, a former Wildcat player, and Richard Pitino, the coach’s son, for more than a decade.
“We’ll have a very close staff,” said Rick Pitino. “I have my son, my New York Knick ball-boy (Masiello) who walked on at UK and is like a son, and now Walt, who helped me achieve all my dreams. He’s like a son, too. It’s remarkable because we’ve already had so many great experiences and so much success together. The closest basketball teams are the ones who experience those important milestones like Final Fours. They come to understand that team success breeds individual success.”
U of L’s newest assistant has been where most of the current players want to go, and he’s done what they want to do – succeed in the NBA. So when McCarty explains ways for the Cards to position themselves in the paint, to defend, to prepare for the next game and to live by the scouting reports, he’ll be speaking from having years of experience against the best players in the world, including three seasons with the Boston Celtics when Pitino was their head coach.
“In every situation we’ve been in together, Walt has always been the one guy on the team everybody got along with, and the one guy who was dependable when they needed someone to talk to at times. He’s a perfect fit here,” said Pitino. “A lot of our current players have some growing up to do. All young people today over-estimate their abilities and under-estimate what they need to work on. Our guys will get an honest answer from Walt, and they’ll come to understand what it means to be a pro – not only in terms of ability but also in the way you carry yourself.”
Another plus is that McCarty’s NBA background, his size (6-foot-10) and his thoughtful and articulate style should open plenty of doors when it comes to recruiting, particularly in the Northeast and on the West Coast, two of the Cards’ focal points.
“Walt was a great professional, not so much in terms of statistics, but he represented the team and the organization so well,” said Pitino. “Everybody loved him because he carried himself like a true pro.”
Most of all, McCarty will bring a new element to a team that has several probable NBA draft picks, that has considerable experience and depth, and that faces a challenging schedule that includes several high-profile non-conference games (such as Purdue, Kentucky, UNLV and possibly North Carolina) and 18 Big East contests.
“The key to any staff is having the right mix,” said Pitino. “Ours is a very young staff, but they’re all very different individuals. One constant, though, is that all three guys love to recruit, and they’re very passionate about it. They all are going to love teaching, because that’s what is going to make them great coaches some day. And they have all enjoyed the style of play that we put on the court, and that’s also important.”
Louisville will likely be a consensus top-10 team in the preseason polls, and Pitino thinks much of the acclaim is justified.
“This is a legitimate basketball team,” he said. “It’s the most talent I’ve had at U of L, although that doesn’t mean we’ll be as good as our last Final Four team. That was a true team – they understood their roles, and they understood what winning was all about.
“This team has outstanding size and talent, their work ethic is there, and they’re great guys, so yes, we’re very bullish on them,” he said. “We know we’re no better than the teams like Kansas, North Carolina, Memphis, Marquette and Georgetown, but I don’t think we’ll take a back seat to anybody, either. We can compete. We will have to work very hard to reach our potential, and we int/files/storyimages/to do just that.”
McCarty should help the cause, especially now that the Cardinals are past the reconstruction phase and are looking to refine their considerable skills and continue building a solid base for the future.
“I’ve been involved with basketball since I was 11,” McCarty said. “I know a great deal about the sport, and I’ve dedicated my life to the sport.”
That’s just another reason Pitino quickly took the unexpected route of choosing McCarty, rather than hiring a veteran assistant from another program.
At first glance, hiring McCarty instead of a veteran assistant was a shocker. Now, after further review, it looks more like the latest example of Pitino pushing exactly the right button at the right time.
WHO’S NEXT? - Marvin Menzies is the 22nd former Pitino assistant or player to become a head coach. The list includes names such as Billy Donovan (Florida), Tubby Smith (Minnesota), Herb Sendek (Arizona State), Mick Cronin (Cincinnati), Ralph Willard (Holy Cross), Travis Ford (Massachusetts), John Pelphrey (Arkansas), Scott Davenport (Bellarmine), Kevin Willard (Iona) and Theus (Sacramento Kings).
FAMILY TIES - “I’m very excited to be coming back to coach with ‘the family’ and get back to this part of the country,” said McCarty. “All my friends and family live in this area, so it’s going to be great to be back and see them all.” McCarty and his wife Erin have two daughters – Gabrielle and Sasha.
INTERESTS – McCarty’s interests range beyond the basketball court. He made a cameo appearance in the 1998 film “He Got Game” as the character “Mance.” In 2003, he released an R&B/soul CD entitled “Moment of Love.” He sang the national anthem prior to All-Star Saturday Night on the eve of the 2006 NBA All-Star game. In 2002, McCarty founded the “I Love Music Foundation” to promote the positive aspects of music and to support the growth of music for youth in the Greater Boston area, as well as in his hometown of Evansville.
BASKETBALL SLATE – U of L will open its 2007-08 basketball season with an appearance in the 7th Annual Findlay Toyota Las Vegas Invitational, an eight-team event that begins with two games at campus sites followed by two moreMa at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. The tourney calls for the Cards to play two games at Freedom Hall – Nov 17 against Hartford and Nov. 18 against Jackson State. U of L will play BYU on Nov. 23 in Las Vegas (9 p.m. ET), then depending on the outcome, play either North Carolina or Old Dominion. On the way to the Vegas event, the Cards will play UNLV on Nov. 21 at the Thomas and Mack Center. Also, on Dec. 15, Louisville will play Purdue in the John Wooden Tradition event at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis (3:30 p.m., CBS). The other part of the doubleheader that day will feature Florida State and Butler.
NOTE: Daily columnist Ron Steiner also appears on the Red & Blue Review, a weekly statewide TV sports show (Insight Ch. 2). He’s also published weekly in the Voice-Tribune and is a guest each Friday (5:45 p.m.) on the Cardinal Insider radio program (WKRD, 790AM). He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .