Rick Pitino, Louisville execute brilliant plan in victory over Michigan State
The thrill of coaching seems to be back for Rick Pitino.
Seattle Times staff columnist
PHOENIX — Here was Rick Pitino, the innovative basketball coach, sounding like the 59-year-old man who he shockingly is.
He stood in front of his team during the pregame and reminisced about his first Final Four team, the 1987 Providence Friars, who are celebrating their 25th anniversary this year. None of his current Louisville players were even alive back then, but these Cardinals remind Pitino so much of those Friars. On Thursday night, minutes before tipoff, the coach just had to make that point.
"Here it is, 25 years, and it's still like they're my best friends in life," Pitino told his team. "You're two games away from having a 25th reunion yourself. And nobody ever forgets a Final Four team."
Make that one game away now.
In a brilliant display of coaching, execution and toughness, No. 4-seed Louisville beat top-seeded Michigan State 57-44 at the US Airways Center to advance to the West Regional finals. It was a vintage effort for a coach who is now six months from 60. Even though these Cardinals don't employ the high-scoring, uber-athletic, fast-paced style we're accustomed to seeing from Pitino teams, they still prepare just as thoroughly, and they play even better defense.
In years past, the score might be 57-44 at halftime. It shows Pitino's versatility and flexibility that he's now winning with a variety of tempos and styles. Against Michigan State, he knew to expect a rugged competition. After a week of extreme emphasis, the Cardinals embraced rugged and played the more physical game. Louisville out-rebounded the Spartans, limited them to only 14 field goals and 28.6 percent shooting and forced 15 turnovers.
You should've known it would be the Cardinals' night when Louisville's favorite son, Muhammad Ali, took his seat and rooted on his hometown team. Before an audience that also included Magic Johnson and Albert Pujols, a wrestling match broke out at times, especially at the beginning when the teams combined to miss 19 of the game's first 22 shots. But Louisville persevered, which is its greatest quality.
After a season of injury trauma, scoring droughts and ridiculous criticism that Pitino had lost his touch, how hard is it to withstand some ugly basketball?
For Louisville, ugly is the new pretty. Given the hard-nosed reputation of Tom Izzo's Michigan State teams, the Cardinals expected a fight. With Ali watching, they punched as forcefully as they could.
"Our main goal was just to match their toughness," guard Kyle Kuric said.
Pitino whittled the game plan to three important concepts.
Stop the three-point shot. Michigan State was only 5 of 21 on three-pointers.
Try to rebound better than a team that out-rebounds opponents by eight per game. The Cardinals held a 39-36 advantage there.
And finally, they wanted to "protect Gorgui (Dieng) with our life." The 6-foot-11 center from Senegal stayed out of foul trouble, played all 40 minutes and was the most impactful player on the court.
Dieng grabbed nine rebounds, blocked seven shots and collected three steals. He even managed five points, including the first three-pointer of his career.
Pitino observed Dieng shooting jumpers after practice about a week ago and told Dieng his shot looks good.
"Next year, I'm shooting a lot of threes," Dieng told his coach.
"No problem, as long as you make them," Pitino said.
After Dieng made that shot Thursday night, the coach smiled and exclaimed, "I thought it was next year."
Such moments are common for Pitino and his players this season. He loves this team because it reminds him of the thrill of coaching. Pitino often mentions the 1987 Providence team because it's his most dramatic example, but many of his best teams have possessed two character traits that are becoming scarce in big-time college basketball.
Asked about coaching Dieng, who has grown from a raw 187-pound kid to a developing 235-pound defensive force at Louisville, Pitino said: "I love Gorgui so much. Because we're not a humble society, athletes today. The Africans are so humble and so hungry. It's so much fun coaching him because it's a throwback."
Pitino sees his entire team this way. The Cardinals have no superstar, though Franklin High School graduate Peyton Siva is very good. Six players average between 9.1 and 12.9 points. The Big East tournament champions are good enough to play with anyone, but they also went to Providence and lost by 31 points — on the night Pitino's 1987 team was being honored. They didn't reach 60 points in the last four games of the regular season.
Louisville has experienced disappointment and doubt, and now the Cardinals are better for it. And Pitino, the aging mastermind, still has it.
"At the end of the day, you can never doubt Coach P," Louisville guard Russ Smith said. "Not a man of his stature."
Pitino is now 10-0 in Sweet 16 games. But this was about more than enhancing his Hall of Fame credentials. This was about the opportunity to create another lifetime memory.
One more victory, and these Cardinals will have their own moment to celebrate in 25 years.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Jerry_Brewer.
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