published Monday, April 8th, 2013

Louisville's Pitino on the cusp of history

  • photo
    Louisville guard Russ Smith (2) lays in a shot over Wichita State forward Carl Hall (22) in their semi-final matchup in the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta onSaturday. Louisville plays Michigan in the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship game tonight.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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    Michigan's Glenn Robinson III (1) shoots as Syracuse's James Southerland defends during the first half of their NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball semifinal game Saturday in Atlanta. Louisville plays Michigan in the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship game tonight.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Poll
Will Louisville win tonight's game?

ATLANTA — Given the week Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino is enjoying, the question had to be asked.

So after noting that Pitino officially will be named to the Basketball Hall of Fame today, that his 30-year-old son Richard was just named the head coach at Minnesota, that his Kentucky Derby-contending colt Goldencents won Saturday's Santa Anita Derby, and that a victory tonight over Michigan in the NCAA championship game inside the Georgia Dome would make him the first coach to win a title at two different schools, a reporter posed the following question during Sunday's media event:

"Coach, do you indeed have a deal with the devil?"

With a wry smile, Pitino said: "I can give you some years when I could name it the other way. So you take it in stride."

Both Pitino's Cardinals and John Beilein's Wolverines have taken their remarkable seasons in stride well enough to tip it off at 9:20 tonight (CBS) before the largest crowd in NCAA championship game history -- 75,350.

Both programs were ranked No. 1 at one point during the regular-season, though neither remained at the top for long. Both rely on deep benches -- U of L's reserves outscored their Wichita State counterparts 34-9 in Saturday's first semifinal with Michigan's bench getting the better of Syracuse's bench 21-11 in the late game.

Both have coaches who preach one four-letter word above all others: team.

"We have built a brand at Louisville," Pitino said of his 34-5 team, which is seeking the school's first NCAA title since 1986 and its third overall. "Everything we do is about the team, about the family. Those of us in team sports always feel that way."

Added Michigan's Beilein, whose Wolverines are 31-7 as they attempt to win their first title since 1989 and their second ever: "The pro game is so much about the stars. The college game is about the team."

The college game was about the stars last season -- Kentucky's stars. The Wildcats -- with whom Pitino won his first NCAA title in 1996 -- started three freshmen and two sophomores on their way to the school's eighth national title, then watched all five, plus senior sixth man Darius Miller, wind up in the NBA draft.

That one-and-done culture of playing one year collegiately then jumping to the pros may indeed be undermining much of college basketball, but it won't be on display tonight inside the Georgia Dome.

In holding to his signature line from a year ago about his disgust for the one-and-done mentality -- "I just can't say hello and goodbye in seven months" -- Pitino is expected to start a senior, two juniors and two sophomores tonight against Michigan.

Beilein will counter with a junior, a sophomore and three freshmen, though none of his rookies is expected to leave for the NBA.

"If I think a kid is going to be a guaranteed one-and-doner," Beilein explained, "we're only going to recruit that kid if his dream is to go to Michigan. He's still going to go to study hall, class, be a great teammate."

Such a mentality from both coaches has certainly allowed them to make a big impact on their players.

"You always hear about [Pitino] being hard on players," said Cards senior point guard Peyton Siva. "On the court he's the most focused guy ever, but off the court he's the most lovable guy ever."

Said Michigan junior Tim Hardaway of Beilein: "First question he ever asked me was, 'How are you academically?' No coach had ever asked me that. It showed me that he cared about me as a person rather than a basketball player."

The Final Four week began with the nation focused on injured Louisville reserve Kevin Ware and his grotesquely broken right leg, which occurred in the Midwest Regional final against Duke.

As a show of support for their fallen teammate, the Cardinals are all wearing Ware's No. 5 on the backs of their warm-ups.

But as tonight's game begins and Pitino looks to make history, it is also worth remembering that he's had his share of heartbreaks, including two which no person should suffer -- the death of his six-month-old son, Daniel, to heart failure in 1987 and the loss of his best friend and brother-in-law Billy Minardi, who was killed when the north tower of the World Trade Center collapsed on 9/11.

"I'm still not over losing a child, and I'm still not over 9/11," he said. "I still think about those guys all the time."

Yet most of his days are spent avoiding the past as he embraces the teachings of a book by Spencer Johnson titled, "The Precious Present."

"I read it to my team at the start of every season," Pitino said. "I tell them, 'Enjoy these times.'"

Especially when you're experiencing the times the Louisville coach has the past few days.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfree press.com.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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