Pitino’s In-Game Adjustment Wins Title
There are a number of very good college basketball coaches out there who have yet to figure out how best to navigate the high pressure rigors of the NCAA tournament. Think Pittsburgh’s Jamie Dixon, Gonzaga’s Mark Few, or Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan. All have impressive regular season numbers but have yet to break through to the Final Four.
The tournament is high pressure for top-seeded teams, and their coaches, which are often rooted against at neutral sites by fans who just want to see an upset. Should the favorite team get off to a sluggish start, the pressure mounts and it’s up to the head coach to get the team back on track—whatever way he can.
The 60-year old Pitino has long been one of the greats at doing just that. How Pitino is able to know which buttons to push, and have the guts to push them no matter how crazy it may seem on the surface, is a testament to his coaching wisdom.
Monday night’s 82–76 championship win against Michigan was his latest résumé-builder.
His Cardinals, the top-seeded team in the tournament, came out a little soft. The Wolverines came out of the gates as the aggressors.
Even as Michigan point guard, and Naismith Player of the Year, Trey Burke sat a majority of the first half with foul troubles, John Beilein’s crew maintained the lead for nearly all the half—even surviving Louisville’s Luke Hancock’s 12-points-in-two-minutes outburst late in the half.
Meanwhile, Pitino’s star guard, Russ Smith, suffered through miserable 1-for-9 shooting in the opening 20 minutes.
Though down only 38–37 at the half Louisville needed a change of pace. While most every coach rants and raves to get the attention of his team, Pitino boldly benched leading-scorer Russ Smith (who had averaged 25 points a game in the tournament) to start the second half.
If Pitino was looking for a wakeup from his team, and not necessarily Smith himself, the ploy worked.
With the Cardinals’ aggressive full-court pressure back in high gear, the lead soon changed hands. And when Louisville guard Chane Behanon’s layup went in with 15:06 left to put the Cards up 47–46, it erased Michigan’s final lead of the night.
The Wolverines, the best in the nation at not turning the ball over (just 9.4 turnovers per game) coughed up the ball 12 times for the game—including nine by steals. And though the team had staged an incredible comeback just a week and a half ago against Kansas (down 14 with under 7 minutes left) they got little offense from freshman power forward Mitch McGary (6 points, 6 rebounds) and were a one-dimensional show down the stretch.
Final Four Most Outstanding Player Luke Hancock led the Cards with 22 points while Peyton Siva had 18. Meanwhile benched guard Russ Smith hit just two out of seven shots after coming off the bench in the second half, making many wonder if his omission from the starting lineup was a mistake—it wasn’t. Pitino won again.