INDIANAPOLIS —During a college basketball career that stretches all the way back to Boston University in 1978, that also carried him to Providence, Kentucky and now Louisville, Rick Pitino has won 73.96 percent of the regular-season games in which he has served as a head coach. That’s really impressive, a good part of the reason he was inducted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame a few years back.
In games he has coached in the NCAA Tournament, though, Pitino has won 74.64 percent. That’s right. He’s better in bigger games, against better opponents, under the brightest lights and the most intense pressure.
There is a reason for this: RickPitinomight not be the best coach ever to work in the NCAA Tournament —that’s MikeKrzyzewski, and John Wooden has a heck of a case —but there’s never been an NCAA Tournament coach like "Coach P."
A lot of college basketball fans like to count off the months like this: January, February,Izzo, April. But Pitino’s March record might be more impressive than Tom Izzo’s at Michigan State.That’s one reason No. 7seed Michigan (25-11) will have a hard time pulling an upset over the No. 2 seed Cardinals (25-8) in Sunday’s second-round tournament game at Banker’s LifeFieldhouse.
In 20 trips to the NCAAs, Pitino’s teams have held or outperformed their seeds 15 times. He has coached in seven Final Fours and is one of only two coaches to get there from three different colleges. (The other is his current rival, Kentucky’s John Calipari.)
Of coaches with more than 40 victories, Pitino ranks third in tournament winning percentage behind Wooden and Coach K. But those two had the benefit of so many elite players: Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Sidney Wicks and Walt Hazard for Wooden; Christian Laettner, Shane Battier, Jay Williams and Jahlil Okafor at Duke.
Pitino had extraordinary players on his mid-1990s Kentucky teams. Otherwise, he has constructed exceptional teams from players not destined to be NBA all-stars, whether it was the Kentucky “Unforgettables” group in 1992 that included John Pelphrey and Deron Feldhaus or the 2013 Louisville NCAA champions whose biggest stars were guards Russ Smith and Peyton Siva.
"I don’t know if it’s unique to March. It’s more a function of what he does every single day, every single practice, every workout,” Santa Clara coach Herb Sendek told Sporting News. "He’s relentless, and March is just a natural continuation of what he does every single day starting the first day in practice. He’s relentless in his pursuit of improvement for his players and teams."
That is true whether the player in question is a star like Cardinals sophomore wing Donovan Mitchell, leading the team in scoring at 15.5 points per game, or a deep reserve like guard David Levitch, who has played a combined 11 minutes over the past four games.
Who else has produced the tournament magic Pitino has with players who might seem buried on their team’s benches? In the 2013 Final Four, guard Tim Henderson entered the national semifinals against Wichita State averaging 6.5 minutes per game. Circumstances led to him playing 10 minutes against the Shockers, and Henderson made two enormous 3-pointers in a 72-68 comeback victory. Struggling against N.C. State and guard Cat Barber in the 2015 Sweet 16, short of players especially in the backcourt, Pitino got 14 points and 3 assists from freshman point guard Quentin Snider, who played double-figure minutes only four times in 12 ACC games before senior guard Chris Jones’ dismissal.
"I was never treated like the reality of what it was; I was never treated like a walk-on,” said guard Cameron Mills, whose emergence with the 1996-97 team following an injury to All-America candidate Derek Anderson helped Kentucky to the NCAA title game. “He spends as much time and energy on guys like me, who have no guarantee they’ll ever get anything other than garbage minutes, as he will on Tony Delk and Derek Anderson. When you’re treated like that all season, you actually believe.”
Levitch hasn’t gotten double-figure minutes in a game since early February, when he averaged 20.5 minutes in a six-game stretch helping to fill the hole in the lineup caused by an injury to Snider. Levitch understands he must always be ready to play regardless of the fact he got a single minute in Friday’s win over Jacksonville State and only six in the ACC Tournament loss to Duke.
"He surprised me once, my sophomore year, in the Elite Eight against Michigan State,"Levitch told SN. "I didn’t play at all in the Sweet 16 game, so I didn’t expect to play that day. It was only two minutes, but I didn’t get scored on. That’s what I remember about that."
When Pitino’s teams are their/his best, they can change defenses from man-to-man to matchup zone, with varying styles of backcourt pressure employed when prudent. That’s what makes them a challenge for NCAA opponents that don’t get the luxury of multiple exposures to the Cardinals’ style and gradually discern the weaknesses in that defense. Pitino was frustrated late in the ACC season about the struggle of the UL defense; but it has been common for less common opponents to be vexed by Louisville’s approach.
In 21 NCAA Tournaments games in this decade, 17 opponents have scored 69 or fewer points. More teams scored 59 or fewer (seven) than topped the 70-point mark.
"He’s the hardest coach I’ve ever had to prepare for,” said Michigan coach John Beilein, who lost an Elite Eight game to Pitino in 2005 and the national title game to him in 2013. “Because it’s always a one-day prep."
And it’s usually in the NCAAs. In March. Pitino’s time. That’s hard to conquer.