“Come at the king, you best not miss”
Rick Pitino can officially die a legend.
After Louisville finished a remarkable run to the 2013 NCAA National Championship against Michigan with an 82-76 win, Pitino’s career finally added its crowning achievement. Yes, the victory was even more important than Pitino’s election to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame earlier in the day.
With a National Championship at Louisville, Pitino became the first college basketball coach ever to win a title at two different schools (Louisville and Kentucky). In addition, Pitino has already held the distinction of being the only coach to take three different teams to the Final Four (Louisville, Kentucky and Providence). Not bad for a guy working in an industry that boasts greatness in names like John Wooden, Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams.
What’s even more impressive is the way Pitino got the job done this year. Louisville’s roster was the ultimate “team.” They lacked major star power and “top-10” recruits. Instead, players like Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan perfectly complemented a lightning-fast, feisty backcourt tandem of Peyton Siva and Russ Smith.
With its physical play as its calling card, Pitino’s team truly did the now-defunct Big East proud in its final season. No one outmuscled Louisville in the NCAA tournament and frankly, teams should have seen it coming after the Cardinals’ second half sheer domination and dismantling of Syracuse in the Big East Championship Final. In vintage Pitino fashion, Louisville time and again played with aggression and smarts. After all, that is what it takes to annihilate Duke in the Elite Eight and contain Wooden Award winner Trey Burke in the championship game.
But perhaps Pitino’s most impressive coaching accomplishment was how he helped his team deal with the horrifying injury to sophomore guard Kevin Ware in the Elite Eight game against Duke. When Ware went down, the nation gasped, and Pitino (who was standing right there) had to witness close-up the carnage of Ware’s shattered tibia. Louisville players watched in horror as well. Some players fainted, others vomited and others cried.
As Ware cried over and over again to “just go win the game” as doctors and trainers tended to him, Pitino brought his team together and did what seemed impossible; he successfully got
the players to clear their minds of a life-changing event, refocus and dominate Duke. “All we can do is win it for Kevin” was the way Pitino had to put it. The team responded and outscored Duke by 19 points in the second half.
Against Wichita State in the Final Four, the Cardinals found themselves coming off an emotionally-draining week after the Ware injury and trailing the Shockers by 12 in the second half. Pitino remained calm, and reassured his team that they could “flip the switch” and run away with another one. They did. And after another working-man’s victory against Michigan, Pitino’s stewardship of this 2012-2013 Louisville Cardinals team came to a thrilling end that was all too fitting.
Great coaches do great things, sometimes in the simplest ways. Pitino created a dominant team identity for the Cardinals early on in the season, but it was the way he handled his pure, human emotions at the end that helped them capitalize on it. It’s safe to say it now: Pitino is one of the very best to ever do it.