Editor’s Note: Steve Politi is a sports columnist for The Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter: @StevePoliti
Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino has 660 college-level victories and 192 with the NBA
Pitino's top-seeded Cardinals play 12th-seeded Oregon Friday in the Sweet 16
Pitino, 60, on his 34-year career: "I want to coach until 70 and beyond"
Louisville is on a 12-game winning streak
In case you think your weekends are filling up now that spring is here, consider the humdinger of a three-day stretch Louisville coach Rick Pitino might face in Atlanta starting April 6.
Saturday: Coach a team in the Final Four for the seventh time, tying North Carolina coach Roy Williams for the fourth most in NCAA history. Only John Wooden (12), Mike Krzyzewski (11) and Dean Smith (11) have coached in more.
Sunday: Receive official word from the Naismith Hall of Fame that he has been chose for induction, the highest honor in the sport. Pitino is one of 12 finalists, with enshrinement in Springfield, Massachusetts, on September 8.
Monday: Lead the Cardinals to their first national championship since 1986 – and, in the process, become the first coach to win a title at two programs. He led the Kentucky Wildcats to the 1996 title.
This scenario is possible for Pitino, whose top-seeded Cardinals play 12th-seeded Oregon in the Sweet 16 on Friday in Indianapolis. A win against the Ducks, followed by a victory against either Duke or Michigan State, and Pitino might have the most incredible Final Four weekend for a coach in history.
Not that he is willing to consider this possibility now. Pitino didn’t become one of the most successful coaches of his generation – with 660 victories at the college level and another 192 in the NBA – by looking ahead.
“Not for two seconds,” he said with a smile Thursday when asked about the potential for that weekend in Atlanta. “Until you brought it up, I didn’t even know it was being voted on.”
The hall selection is voted on by a committee. The basketball, of course, is played for the world to see. With the way his team has played over the past seven weeks, the Cardinals have emerged as the clear favorite in what was the most wide-open college basketball season in years.
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Since a 104-101 loss at Notre Dame on February 9 – an epic five-overtime thriller that ranks among the best games of the season – Louisville has won 12 straight games. Only one of those, a 58-53 win over a Syracuse team then ranked 12th in the nation, was decided by single digits.
Pitino would never classify this Louisville team as his best, not when he regularly filled NBA rosters while coaching the other half of this bluegrass blood rivalry at Kentucky. But few teams have bought into his philosophy better than this one, with a relentless pressing defense and unselfish offense built around the 3-point line.
Let the most recent victim explain: “I don’t want to put any pressure on Rick and his guys, but they’re special,” Larry Eustachy said after his Colorado State team suffered an 82-56 loss in the third round. “They need a little luck like everybody does to win it all … but I can’t say enough about coach Pitino and how he gets his guys to play for 40 minutes as impressive as I’ve ever seen.”
It is almost hard to believe that the still-young-looking Pitino is 60, that he is in his fourth decade as a coach. But it’s been 34 years since he took his first head coaching job at Boston University, 26 years since he took his first team to the Final Four with Providence and 17 years since he clipped the nets for the first (and so far only) time as a champion at Kentucky.
Louisville is his seventh stop as a head coach, and at 12 seasons so far, his longest. Pitino has taken the Cards to a pair of Final Fours, in 2005 and 2012, but has never led them to a title. This is not only his best shot, but a team that he has enjoyed coaching like few in his career.
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“If I can keep recruiting guys like this, I want to coach until 70 and beyond, because I’ve had such a blast and to see guys work that hard inside just fills you up, really does,” Pitino said. “That’s not easy to do what they do. I don’t think in my best day as an athlete I could have done half of what these guys do in the course of a game. It’s really amazing what they do on the court.”
It starts with Pitino. Of the remaining coaches in the NCAA Tournament, he is one of six with titles on his resume, with two – Duke’s Krzyzewski and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim – already Hall of Famers. But few have left a bigger imprint on the game than the Louisville coach.
Pitino helped usher in a new era in college basketball, recognizing before most coaches that the 3-point line would radically change how the game would be played. His teams defended all 94 feet on the court, using their quickness to force turnovers and emphasizing that any open shot from behind that arc is a good one.
He said it was a style he developed at Boston University, a struggling program he rebuilt, when he was a 20-something coach. “So I could basically make all the mistakes I wanted to and no one noticed,” he said. “I was continuing tinkering with the full court press, changing it, working at it. For the five years at BU, I came up with a style of play that I stuck with from that point on.”
Or, as his point guard Peyton Siva said, “We can play at the YMCA, and I guarantee you Coach Pitino will still have us pressing full court.”
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The style – and, of course, the players – helped made him a winner at each of his college stops, and he even used it with mixed results in the NBA. When the Cardinals fell behind by 16 early in the second half to Syracuse in this Big East Tournament championship game this season, it was the press that helped turn the game around – and, eventually, into a 17-point victory.
The Cardinals are deep, talented and balanced, led by an experienced back court in Siva (9.7 points and 5.9 assists a game) and Russ Smith (18.4 points).
“From a talent standpoint (this team) may not even be in my top five,” Pitino said. “But in terms of execution, intensity, a will to win, it’s up there. We don’t play the game for the lottery (in the NBA) draft. We play the game for Louisville, and then our guys move on and they’re very successful people in and out of basketball.
“I’m just having a blast. The kids are just loving, loving individuals and just great to be around.”
Pitino has this team two victories away from another Final Four – and, quite possibly, a weekend like no coach in history has ever experienced.