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Defense links legendary coaches
Rick Pitino loves to tell stories, and he does it very, very well.
He’ll talk for 10 minutes about the intervention he had with Peyton Siva last season because the point guard was spreading himself too thin and saying yes to everybody. He’ll talk on and on about the heated rivalry between Kentucky and Louisville. He’ll tell the same story about his early days in coaching at Boston University, where an unknown Boston Globe beat writer named Lesley Visser was writing on page 15 of the sports section about an unknown coach named Rick Pitino, who was experimenting with a full-court press.
He’ll end these stories with a laugh that’s both full-throated and authentic, even though you know he’s told this story hundreds of times before.
One of the Louisville coach’s favorite stories to tell is how he came to be hired by Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim way back in 1976. It’s an especially poignant story to tell this weekend, as the two coaches who worked together for two years now find themselves on opposite sides of the bracket in the Final Four, close friends and potential foes in Monday’s national title game.
It’s a story of how two of the greatest basketball coaches of all time came to share a common foundation in the game and how that produced two of the signature defensive systems in college hoops: Boeheim’s 2-3 zone that chokes the life out of opponents and Pitino’s full-court press that forces opponents into mistakes by speeding up their tempo.
The story goes like this: The year was 1976. It was Pitino’s wedding night. Pitino was in a hotel room at the New York City Sheraton with his new bride when the phone rang. It was Boeheim calling from the lobby, and he needed to talk — right now.
Boeheim had just been promoted to become Syracuse’s head coach, and he wanted to make Pitino, then the interim head coach at Hawaii, his assistant. In the hotel lobby, Pitino kept telling him he’d think about it, but he really, really needed to get back to his brand-new wife. Boeheim kept pressing him. After four hours of badgering — an early four-hour lesson for his new bride on what it’s like to be a coach’s wife — Pitino relented and took the job on the spot.
Nearly 40 years later, Pitino and Boeheim have become larger-than-life personalities, and the primary coaching gurus of their chosen systems of defense.
On the surface, these two systems don’t have much in common. Pitino’s full-court press uses short, speedy guards to wreak havoc over all 90 feet of the court; Boeheim’s 2-3 zone uses long, rangy guards and forwards in the half court to clog passing lanes and close gaps quickly.
But those two years together at Syracuse — Boeheim actually hired Pitino because he wanted to play more man-to-man — became a shared philosophical foundation that shaped each coach’s basketball mind.
Villanova’s Jay Wright was one of only two coaches whose team beat both Syracuse and Louisville this year (Georgetown’s John Thompson III was the other). Wright sees Syracuse and Louisville as the most difficult teams in his league to prepare for.
“They both use the same concepts, but Pitino does it smaller and quicker; he covers the full court, and Boeheim is bigger and longer and he uses the half court,” Wright told FOXSports.com. “But they’re really both the same concepts. Pitino’s team uses quickness and speed to take you out of running any offense and to create turnovers. And those turnovers turn into easy baskets. Syracuse uses their length and their size so you can’t run any man-to-man offense in the zone, and they get out in passing lanes and create turnovers and turn them into easy baskets.”
“You can’t run any offense against either one of them.”
The shared basketball philosophy — throw your opponent off his game — was developed together by the two, not just on the Manley Field House practice floor in the 1970s, but also in the hotel rooms Pitino and Boeheim shared on the road.
On the road, sleeping in Holiday Inns, the two couldn’t have been more opposite. Pitino was an adventurous eater; Boeheim would go to the same restaurant and order the same Reuben sandwich. Pitino went to bed early; Boeheim would watch old movies all night.
“Then after he was done with the movies, he’d sit there and read,” Pitino told FOXSports.com last year. “He’d stay at the edge of bed not to wake me up, put the TV down, then read. I thought, ‘This guy is a strange dude.’ ”
But the two young coaches talked basketball philosophy non-stop, whether on the road or over an Italian meal at Grimaldi’s in Syracuse. Then Pitino took a head coaching job at Boston University — which led to head-coaching jobs at Providence, Kentucky and two NBA franchises before he came to Louisville — while Boeheim stayed put.
“Rick was an unbelievable young coach; you could see that,” Boeheim said this week. “We pressed a lot back then. We played man and zone back then. So I think we were a little bit more similar to what Louisville is now back then … We pushed it up the court. Louisville pushes up the court. So there’s a lot of similarities the way both teams play, I think.”
“Jim hired me back then because I was working the 5-Star Basketball Camp and had a good connection with all the best high school basketball players from working that camp,” Pitino said this week. “He also wanted to play more man-to-man defense. He was under (former Syracuse head coach) Roy Danforth, who was strictly zone. Back then we played a lot of man-to-man. I was fortunate; I got to learn the zone. So we played probably about 60/40 back then.”
On Saturday, the Pitino press and the Boeheim zone will give Wichita State and Michigan headaches of equal strength. What Wright believes Boeheim doesn’t get credit for is how he tailors his zone defense to an opponent’s personnel, then adjusts it in the second half after charting the opponent’s first-half shots.
“We haven’t really faced a lot of 2-3 zone all year,” Michigan guard Nik Stauskas said. “We had a couple of teams that switch to it for a couple of minutes maybe, but every time a team has ran a 2-3 zone against us, I feel like we’ve done pretty well against it. We got to have a full week to prepare for Syracuse, and in practice we got to see a lot of zone defense.”
Opponents say it all the time about Syracuse: You know that zone is coming, you just can’t duplicate the team’s length in practice. They say similar things about Louisville: You know that press is coming, you just can’t duplicate the team’s speed in practice.
“What you’ve got to do is not turn the ball over,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “If we’re turning the ball over and giving them transition opportunities, then we’re not doing what we’re trying to do.”
But that’s what these legendary coaches force teams to do.
“As a coach you know what it is, but you can’t simulate their size, you can’t simulate their length, and you can’t simulate how well they react to one another,” Wright said.
He was talking about Boeheim’s team, but the same holds true for Pitino’s team: You know what’s coming. You just can’t beat it.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.
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