BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP)—When it comes to the NCAA tournament, there are a few fixtures—bracketology, buzzer beaters and Rick Pitino.
Hard to believe, but it was 25 years ago when he first took a team to the tourney. Back then, he was a brash New Yorker simply glad to be invited.
It’s different now: His jet-black hair is flecked with gray, he’s got wrinkles around his eyes, his suits are more expensive.
Some things, though, never change. Popping gum throughout practice Thursday, the Louisville coach was as intense as ever.
“We’re all very hungry,” Pitino said.
Pitino hopes to add to his sparkling March resume on Friday when the third-seeded Cardinals take on 14th-seeded Boise State.
This marks Pitino’s 13th year in the tournament, and his 32-11 record includes the 1996 championship with Kentucky. He remains the only coach to take three different teams to the Final Four.
“The thing I admire about Coach as much as his record and how well he’s done, I really look at people who bring new things to the game,” Boise State coach Greg Graham said. “He brought the 3 to the game early when he was with Providence. And at Kentucky he started all the pressing and different things.
“He’s an innovator,” he said. “Coach has been like that forever.”
Seems like forever, certainly.
Pitino began coaching in 1974 as a graduate assistant at Hawaii, and the path later took him through Boston University and the New York Knicks. Over the years, he’s seen most everything on and off the court.
“That’s what you get with somebody who has been coaching as long as he has,” senior captain David Padgett said. “He’s been to five Final Fours and he’s on the NBA level and college level.”
The Cardinals went 24-8 this season and lost their last two games, finishing with an overtime loss to Pittsburgh in the Big East tournament.
Boise State (25-8) won the Western Athletic Conference championship game, beating New Mexico State in triple overtime.
The Broncos are 0-4 overall in the NCAA tournament, losing to Louisville in their last appearance in 1994. That was the only time the teams played.
Still, Graham is familiar with Louisville—sort of. His first job as a head coach was at Louisville High School in Louisville, Ohio. This will be his first time coaching in the NCAA tournament.
“I’ve been coming to it for 25 years. Just haven’t been in it all the time, but I’ve been coming to it,” he said.
Reggie Larry averages nearly 20 points per game and leads the Broncos. His flying dunk punctuated the win that put them into the tournament.
The matchup against someone with a long-standing basketball tradition gives Boise State a chance to do something its football team accomplished more than a year ago. In the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, the Broncos stepped up and beat Oklahoma in a thriller.
Senior guard Matt Bauscher acknowledges being a bit envious.
“The football team is obviously year in and year out a national powerhouse. Not to say we’re jealous of them, but when the whole town talks about them 24-7 — it’s spring and the headlines are what’s happening in spring practice—I mean, you hold a little grudge,” he said.
“The whole town is behind us after this win. All we hear on billboards and in sports bars is ‘three overtimes.’ Everybody’s behind us now,” he said.
Graham likes it that way.
“The big question is are we going to get a blue or orange court to match our football field,” he said.