By Tim Casey
STORRS, Conn. -- At Symphony Hall in nearby Springfield, Mass., four months ago, Rick Pitino delivered a 20-minute speech as part of his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, an honor he couldn't have imagined when he got into the business 40 years earlier. He told a story about how he and other young coaches in the 1970s working at the famous Five-Star camp would sit on cement and listen to veterans Dick Vitale and Hubie Brown, both of whom stood near Pitino on the stage that September afternoon.
Pitino recalled that when he was an assistant at Syracuse in 1977, UNC Charlotte upset the Orange in the NCAA tournament. The second game of the doubleheader featured top-ranked Michigan against Detroit, a heavy underdog coached by Vitale. As Detroit walked on the court, Pitino was near the Michigan fans' section when Vitale approached.
"[Vitale] was taunting them, telling them, 'You don't know what you're in for. You're going down Big Blue,'" Pitino said, laughing.
On Saturday night, the two were back together in New England, this time an hour away from Springfield as Pitino coached Louisville to a 76-64 victory over Connecticut and Vitale called the game for ESPN. Pitino, now 61, has changed through the years in some ways. He's become one of the most successful coaches in college basketball history, earned tens of millions of dollars, raised five children, endured a difficult stretch with the Celtics and suffered through an embarrassing incident in 2009 when the wife of Louisville's men's basketball equipment manager attempted to extort money from him and he had to apologize for a sexual indiscretion. What hasn't changed is Pitino's competitiveness.
"It's like he hasn't won a national title in his life, he hasn't done none of this stuff," Louisville sophomore forward Montrezl Harrell said. "Every day, he's going hard, and we're working."
For Pitino, 2013 couldn't have gone much better. The Cardinals won the NCAA championship, the second of his career. He joined Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, SMU's Larry Brown, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim and Kansas' Roy Williams as currently active men's college basketball coaches in the Hall of Fame. Minnesota hired his son, Richard, as its coach. He was even part-owner of a horse who ran in the Kentucky Derby and won a Breeders' Cup race.
Until recently, this season hadn't been as kind to Pitino. In the preseason, Louisville was third in the Associated Press and USA TODAY polls. The Cardinals have yet to justify those lofty rankings. They have 16 victories but are 0-3 against ranked opponents, losing to North Carolina, Kentucky and Memphis.
Still, Pitino has watched his team improve in the past three games when Louisville defeated SMU and Houston at home and UConn on the road in front of the loudest, most energetic crowd he's ever seen at Gampel Pavilion.
"We're starting to play very good basketball right now," Pitino said.
They're doing so under difficult circumstances. In late December, Pitino dismissed starting forward Chane Behanan for unspecified violations. Guard Kevin Ware, who suffered a gruesome broken leg in last year's Final Four, is likely gone for the rest of the season with an injured leg. Louisville also played Saturday without starting guard Chris Jones, who has an oblique injury. It is uncertain when Jones will return.
Instead of a deep team capable of playing 10 guys as projected, Louisville is now shorthanded. Only eight Cardinals played Saturday, including Tim Henderson, who was held scoreless and attempted one shot in eight minutes. The losses haven't hurt the Cardinals, though. In fact, they've played better without Behanan, a skilled but unreliable enigma.
After losing to Kentucky on Dec. 28 with Behanan in the lineup, Pitino criticized the Cardinals' forwards and centers and lamented their lack of physical play. His tone changed Saturday as Louisville had a 45-30 rebounding advantage and outscored UConn 40-20 in the paint. Harrell, a potential first-round NBA draft selection in June, was particularly impressive. He scored 18 points, grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds and showed off better moves and footwork in the post.
"We've got all-new pieces, guys that haven't played in this program before," Harrell said. "It's going to take them some time to know what coach wants, but I think we're starting to get and understand what he wants on the defensive end. … Right now, we're worried about the defensive end and our press and making our rotations."
The Cardinals benefited from a defensive adjustment Saturday. With Jones out and only one day to prepare for UConn following Thursday night's 39-point victory over Houston, Louisville ditched its pressure attack for the most part and implemented a matchup zone. UConn point guard Shabazz Napier scored 30 points and made 7-of-15 shots, but the rest of the Huskies had a combined 34 points and connected on 12-of-39 field goals.
"We wanted to play a half-court defense and just try and confuse them as best we could," Pitino said.
Wearing a black polo shirt with a national title logo on it and a huge NCAA championship ring on his left hand, Pitino was in a good mood afterward. UConn's Kevin Ollie, considered one of the nicest and most laidback coaches in college basketball, was ejected from Saturday's game for arguing with the referees.
"Kevin Ollie, you don't want to ever see [get ejected]," Pitino said, smiling. "[Former UConn coach] Jim Calhoun, you want to see him get thrown out. I'm only kidding. Make sure you tell Jim that."
Pitino laughed, as did the assembled media. The Cardinals are getting better, and Pitino is showing no signs he's ready to retire anytime soon. He continues to be an aggressive recruiter and puts in the necessary time to convince the best kids to come to a legendary program with some of the most passionate fans in the sport.
Last February, a day after Louisville defeated DePaul outside of Chicago, Pitino was in Seattle watching a high school basketball game. He flew there to see Shaqquan Aaron, a 6-foot-6 guard/forward from Rainier Beach High School, where former Louisville forward Terrence Williams had played. Pitino and Rainier Beach coach Mike Bethea had developed a strong relationship, and Pitino had also signed point guard Peyton Siva a few years earlier from a rival Seattle high school. As a senior last spring, Siva led Louisville to the national title.
Aaron, who had scholarship offers from Arizona, UCLA and numerous other schools, signed with Louisville. This fall, he will join three other players ranked among ESPN's top 100 for the high school class of 2014.
"[Pitino] was always in contact with me, talking to me," Aaron said. "When I visited, he was on me tough, wanting me to go there bad."
Pitino's intensity doesn't wane when players enroll in college. In the Louisville locker room late Saturday night, guard Russ Smith wore Kevin Durant's orange Nike sneakers and an Oklahoma City Thunder ski cap with his nickname ("Smitty") inscribed on the side. Smith, the Cardinals' leading scorer who had a team-high 23 points, is a big Durant and Thunder fan and has dreams of playing for them someday. If he's able to have an NBA career, he said he'll have Pitino to thank.
"He pushes each and every one of us to be the best we can be," Smith said. "He's just coach P. That's why he's a Hall of Famer. He can stop whenever he wants to, but he's here and he's helping everybody get better. He's helping me, and he's coaching as if he hasn't coached 10 years. I'm just happy to have a guy like him."