INDIANAPOLIS – Louisville coach Rick Pitino is in the basketball Hall of Fame. If there were such a thing as a hyperbole Hall of Fame, he’d be a first-ballot selection for that, too.
“We’re playing the Golden State Warriors on Sunday,” Pitino said, upgrading an NCAA tournament No. 7 seed to the best basketball team in the world.
John Beilein, coach of the Michigan Wolverines and not the Warriors, shook his head at that one.
“It’s a huge exaggeration,” Beilein said. “I would not put us in that ballpark in any way.”
Pitino also said that Beilein is the hardest coach he’s ever prepared for. Your thoughts, John?
“Rick was exaggerating a lot,” he said. “This is the part before they kick your butt. They try to butter you up a little bit.”
Louisville will attempt to kick Michigan’s butt Sunday for the right to advance to the Sweet 16. It won’t be easy. Pitino’s over-the-top rhetoric is at least based on truth: The Wolverines are playing brilliantly and pose a major threat to the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region.
But as hard as Beilein’s unique style is to prepare for on a short turnaround, Pitino has had notable NCAA tournament success doing so. Twice.
Pitino’s two biggest wins at Louisville both have come at Beilein’s expense. In 2005, when Beilein was at West Virginia, the Cardinals roared back from 20 points down in the West Region final to beat the Mountaineers in overtime, making their first Final Four in 19 years and first under Pitino. Then eight years later, Louisville outlasted Beilein-coached Michigan in the national championship game to make Pitino the first coach ever to win NCAA titles at two different schools.
Pitino-Beilein III will be a compelling matchup of a great offensive mind against a great defensive mind.
Using Ken Pomeroy’s analytics, Michigan is the No. 4 offensive efficiency team in the country, and this is the third time in the past five years the Wolverines have been in Pomeroy’s top five. Meanwhile, this is the seventh straight season Louisville has had a top-10 defense – sometimes using a zone, sometimes full-court pressure, sometimes half-court man to man. The Cardinals currently are No. 7 in that area, which actually is lowest in these past seven years. Twice in that span, Louisville was No. 1.
The most recent time was 2013. In that same year, Michigan was the No. 1 offensive team in the country. No wonder they met for the national title.
In both their previous NCAA tourney games, Louisville had to withstand withering perimeter bombardments and then counterattack with an assault on the offensive glass. In 2005, the Mountaineers dropped 18 3-pointers on the Cardinals but surrendered 15 offensive rebounds. In 2013, freshman bench jockey Spike Albrecht rose from obscurity to hit four first-half threes, but again a Beilein team surrendered 15 offensive boards to a Pitino team.
“Where they have been able to really expose a weakness of ours is just getting baskets over the top or getting offensive rebounds, because they usually have very talented guards [who can get to the rim],” Beilein said. “They’re able to get downhill a little bit … and then while you’re either giving help or give one step to help, if they miss, they’ve got some long-armed dude all over the top of the rim.”
Those memories were refreshed Friday, when Louisville grabbed 16 offensive rebounds against Jacksonville State and outscored the Gamecocks 24-3 in second-chance points. Once again, blocking out will be vital for Michigan.
Rebounding is an area where Beilein teams are historically weak. He generally wants five highly skilled shooters and passers on the floor, and will exchange rebounds for a low turnover rate and a high number of threes. Most of the time, it works in his favor. And good luck getting ready for it, because you can’t show your players film of a similar opponent they’ve already played.
“They’re truly unique,” Pitino said. “And with a one-day prep, it’s very difficult.”
Pitino does have a couple of advantages to accelerate the preparation learning curve.
He happens to know a Big Ten coach whose team competed against Michigan twice – the guy at Minnesota, Richard Pitino. (Richard was en route to Indy Saturday, presumably armed with every scouting report he has on the Wolverines.) And Rick was in Minnesota’s Williams Arena watching Michigan in person Feb. 19, so he got a look at them up close.
What he saw was a team with good size that also plays much of the game with five players on the perimeter. That’s modern basketball.
“You look at the size of the players that Michigan has, and they shoot it like backcourt players,” Pitino said. “That’s what’s coming on. … It has evolved where 6-10, 6-11 guys don’t want to play in the post.”
Of course, just about everything new is a variation of something old. In football, the spread option has elements of the old single wing. In basketball, the perimeter-based offenses remind Beilein of the old days, too.
“It’s probably more like the games in the 60s right now,” he said.
Rick Pitino would like this game Sunday against John Beilein to be like something out of 2013. Or 2005.
Beilein would prefer a new script entirely. If his team does its best Warriors impersonation, it can happen.
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