By Steve Silverman

The NCAA has officially stripped Louisville of its 2013 NCAA title and its Final Four appearance the year before, and that’s one more slap in the face for deposed head coach Rick Pitino.

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While the coach is firmly situated in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, he was unceremoniously dumped by the school before the start of the season. He was officially placed on “administrative leave” in September and fired for cause in October after the Louisville program was linked to an FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball.

Pitino has been relatively quiet on his firing since then, but he spoke out Wednesday about his team getting stripped of the 2013 title and issued a statement on his dismissal.

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“Did a few of [the players] partake in parties they didn’t organize? Yes they did,” Pitino said. “But that had nothing to do with an extra benefit. Those parties did not enhance our players’ ability to win a national championship or go to a Final Four.”

Pitino proclaimed his innocence into the details of the FBI probe, saying he had “never been involved” with paying any money or giving improper benefit to a player, his family or any representatives.

Pitino is hurting without college basketball in a number of ways, as he is not developing young talent, scouting players and game planning. He is also hurting because of the $35 million he is not getting because of his dismissal. Pitino filed suit against the University of Louisville in October.

There has been quite a bit of talk that Pitino would seek to return to coaching in the NBA, but he denied having contact with any team at this point.

However, it’s difficult to see Pitino sit idly by for more than one season, and it seems that an NBA coaching role could once again be in his future. Pitino had two coaching stints with the New York Knicks, serving as an assistant from 1983 through ’85, and then returning to become head coach for two seasons, starting in 1987-88. He also served as head coach of the Boston Celtics from 1997 through 2001.

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Gonzaga rounding into form at most crucial time

Through the first part of the season, this did not look like a typical season for Gonzaga and head coach Mark Few.

While the Bulldogs appeared to have the usual array of strong players and would have every chance to make a run in the West Coast Conference, the team was not playing at its accustomed high level. Gonzaga had three losses on its record before the end of December, and defense appeared to be an afterthought.

Gonzaga gave up 111 points in a loss to Florida and 88 in another defeat at the hands of Villanova. The Bulldogs did not come close to mustering their best effort in either of those games, and that was also the case in some wins against lesser opponents.

But that changed after Few tore the December page off the calendar. With two games remaining on the regular schedule, the Bulldogs are 25-4, have won nine games in a row and are the sixth-ranked team in the nation.

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The closest game in that streak was an eight-point win over BYU, and the belief is that the team will continue to improve during the West Coast Conference tournament and be at its best at tournament time.

Killian Tillie is a big man who plays harassing defense and can hit his three-point shot. He is knocking down 45 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.

Senior forward Johnathan Williams is leading the team with 13.6 points and 8.0 rebounds per game, while junior guard Josh Perkins is right behind with 13.0 points per night and a team-high 5.1 assists per game.

Tillie, Zach Norvell Jr. and Rui Hachimura are all averaging in double figures.

Will Gonzaga win the national championship? That has yet to be determined, but Few has the weapons to join the fight.

Last four in, first four out

With the regular season down to the final two weekends – one weekend in the case of the Big Ten – it’s time to look at the teams that are on the bubble or just outside of it as far as the NCAA tournament is concerned.

Baylor, Syracuse, Louisville and North Carolina State appear to be the last four teams in the tournament, and UCLA, Texas, Penn State and Utah are the first four on the outside looking in.

Here’s a roadmap that the last four in will have to negotiate:

Baylor – Three games left, two on the road at TCU and Kansas State. The Bears are coming off a home loss to West Virginia but had won their previous five games.

Syracuse – Brutal closing schedule with road games against Duke and Boston College and a home game with Clemson. Jim Boeheim’s team has lost four of its last seven

Louisville – Three games remaining, including the season finale on the road against North Carolina State. The Cardinals have 10 losses but have played a challenging schedule.

North Carolina State – Three games remaining, including two at home vs. Florida State and Louisville. The Wolfpack has responded to back-to-back losses against Virginia Tech and North Carolina with three straight wins.

Numbers, we have numbers

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Villanova is the highest scoring team in the nation, averaging 87.6 points per game while shooting 51.3 percent from the floor. Duke is close behind, averaging 87.2 points per night and hitting 50.0 percent of its shots. … Michigan State may be the best passing team in the nation. The Spartans are dishing out 20.3 assists per night, nearly one full assist better than TCU, averaging 19.4 dimes per game. …. Any game against Stephen F. Austin is likely to cause problems for opposing ball handlers. The Lumberjacks lead the nation with 10.79 steals per game, and they have a 23-5 record this season.