Pitino Returns To The Dance

Louisville coach Rick Pitino urges his team on during the first half of their Conference USA championship game against UAB Saturday, March 15, 2003, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke) AP

Rick Pitino was never far from the NCAA tournament, even when he was coaching the Boston Celtics.

His players would debate their brackets on bus rides, and Pitino joined the fray. One ritual during tournament time was the good-natured ribbing of Paul Pierce, who played for upset-prone Kansas before entering the pros.

"I used to kid Paul and say, 'I hope it's not going to be another bad March for you,"' Pitino said.

The Louisville coach won't have to settle for arguments on buses this year. Pitino's back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1997 after leading the Cardinals to their first berth in three years.

Louisville (24-6) is the No. 4 seed in the East Region, and will play 13th-seeded Austin Peay (23-7) on Friday in Birmingham, Ala.

"It's my favorite time of year," said Pitino, the fourth coach to lead four different teams to the tournament. "It's as much fun as there is in sports — not only concentrating on your game, but watching some of the other things that go on."

Louisville hasn't won a game in the tournament since 1997, and senior Reece Gaines is the only player that was around for the Cardinals' first-round loss to Gonzaga in 2000.

"I'm looking forward to the opportunity," the Cardinals' leading scorer said. "There's definitely a lot of emotion right now. It's exciting to finally get back and have a chance to play in the tournament."

Kentucky transfer Marvin Stone has played in the tournament, but the 6-foot-10 center averaged just 12.6 minutes in five postseason games with the Wildcats.

That's still more experience than Pitino had when he led Providence to the 1987 Final Four, or Kentucky to the 1992 East Regional final. No player on either of those was tournament-tested.

Pitino relies on full-court pressure and a fast-break offense to negate postseason inexperience, a system that helped players overcome their nervousness.

"If you can create a very chaotic environment, it's about reacting and not thinking," Pitino said. "That's what we try to do — not get them to think, just get them to execute."

Pitino is 26-7 in the NCAA tournament, ranking eighth in winning percentage with a minimum of 10 games, and seventh in tournament victories among active coaches.

He has won eight straight first-round games, crediting his exhausting style for success against early-round opponents.

"You only have a short period of time to go against it," he said. "Unless there's a team in your league that plays it, it's very difficult to prepare for it in three days, and you can't simulate the fatigue that happens from that."

Pitino has been unhappy with Louisville's press this season.

The Cardinals forced 522 turnovers, well short of Pitino's 1992 Kentucky team, which lost to Duke and Christian Laettner and finished with 708 turnovers. His 1996 NCAA championship squad at Kentucky forced 799 turnovers.

"To beat the teams from Austin Peay on, we need to play pressure basketball," he said. "If we can't do it, we won't advance. We're going to play pressure basketball against everybody and that's the only chance we have of winning."

There's not much Pitino can convey from his tournament experiences to help his players.

"They know I know what to expect," he said. "But the game still has to be played between the lines."

Austin Peay coach Dave Loos isn't surprised at Louisville's high seeding.

"Rick Pitino obviously is one of the best basketball coaches in the college game and the country," said Loos, wrapping up his 13th season. "He's done that before he went Louisville — come into a program and do well right away."

Austin Peay is a familiar opponent — at least for Pitino.

His Providence team played the Governors in Birmingham, Ala., in the second round of the 1987 tournament. The Friars advanced to the regional semifinals in Louisville.

That year, the Governors upset Illinois in the first round, a team Pitino said the Friars probably would not have beaten.

"You need that one game where you're lucky — in 1987, it was Austin Peay," Pitino said. "In 1996, we didn't need any luck because we had the most talent ever assembled.

"But you need luck. You need confidence. You need to execute in the final two minutes. You need to make free throws," he said. "There are a lot of things you can't answer.

"Do we have the talent to win and advance? Of course we do."


  • John Esterbrook

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