Once again, the turnover-averse Wolverines will be going up against a team that turns opposing players over at an alarming rate. Once again, the opposing team has the edge as far as tournament experience. Once again, Michigan – the youngest team in the NCAA tournament – will be facing a junior-and-senior-laden group.
However, Louisville coach Rick Pitino says it’s time to retire that last point. Michigan may be young, he said, but they don’t play like it.
“On paper you would say this is a young basketball team. But because (John Beilein) has done such a great job molding this team, they play like seniors,” Pitino said. “You don’t see guys pass, catch and shoot like that. This is a remarkable team the way they share, the way they pass. They don’t play like a young basketball team.”
The Wolverines have seen all of their freshmen step up in big moments throughout the tournament. Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert both had tremendous games on Saturday, and Glenn Robinson III has had an NCAA tournament much more productive than the majority of his Big Ten season.
But the freshman who has grabbed the most headlines is Mitch McGary. McGary has won the hearts and minds of many an NBA scout over the past few weeks as he’s exploded onto the national scene as a star for Michigan.
“Mitch McGary in the beginning of the year was a good player who had really good potential. Now he’s a great player, one of the premiere big guys in our country,” Pitino said. “So he’s not a freshman, doesn’t play like a freshman. Nobody on their team does.”
With all the NBA talk swirling around McGary, and Pitino being someone who worked in the NBA for years, Louisville’s coach found an NBA player to compare McGary to.
“I make the analogy of David Lee. He reminds me of David Lee,” Pitino said. “Big‑time athlete, David was. David really improved his shooting. Couldn’t shoot a lick. He was shooting air balls from the foul line in college. Great runner. Very active. Now he’s become a great passer. Tremendous outlet guy. Great basketball player.”
Pitino remembers 2005 Elite Eight overtime triumph over Beilein, West Virginia
In 2005, then-West Virginia coach John Beilein and Louisville coach Rick Pitino met in an NCAA tournament game for the ages. This was the year of Kevin Pittsnogle and Mike Gansey for the Mountaineers, when Beilein rode the tremendous shooting of his West Virginia team to upsets over Wake Forest and Texas Tech and a berth in the Elite Eight.
There, West Virginia met Louisville. Pitino remembers the game well.
“I remember it. I hope I’m right on the numbers. We were down 20, like, 12 minutes into the game,” Pitino said. “Literally his son (Pat Beilein) made a three when he was in Albuquerque, New Mexico. That was, I believe, the 10th or 11th three that half, and we extended our zone.”
Despite shooting 66 percent for the game from long range, the Mountaineers allowed the Cardinals back in the game after Louisville decided to abandon its zone and move to a man-to-man, pressing attack.
“I said, guys, I’m sorry to say this, we can’t beat ’em playing zone. We have got to press, play all man,” Pitino said. “We spent our 12 minutes in the locker room clearing the chairs. They ran more of a Princeton offense back then, going through the back cuts. I said, I know we got seven guys, you’re going to have to press. We cut it to 12 at the half. We wound up winning it in overtime.”
While John Beilein did lose that game in overtime, it was a match-up that left Pitino with a deep respect for the coach, both the way he operates in games and the way he runs his program.
“But his offensive sets, both against man and zone, he’s one of the best offensive minds in basketball,” Pitino said. “The other thing about him, he really recruits to his system maybe better than any coach, as Jim [Boeheim] recruits to his zone defensively, he recruits to his system. He gets everybody that can pass, catch and shoot. Then if you get up on ’em, they can ball fake and drive.”
Pitino almost ended up at Michigan in 2001
This is a story that’s known to most longtime Michigan basketball fans, but Rick Pitino was about as close as it gets to being Michigan’s coach in 2001, succeeding former Michigan coach Brian Ellerbe. Pitino gave a particularly vivid retelling of the process that led to him turning down the job on Sunday.
Pitino had already signed all of the paperwork and was ready to phone in and accept the job. But his wife disagreed with his decision. Vehemently.
“She had a book. That was an expression in the book that, I’d rather live one day as a lion than a thousand as a lamb. She didn’t want to go to Michigan because I’ve never visited there, I didn’t know anybody there. She wanted to go back to Kentucky where she saw the family so happy for eight years,” Pitino said. “I said to her, ‘You don’t understand, the Kentucky coach can’t coach at Louisville.’ You’re just not getting it. … We don’t want to do that. We’ll be miserable. You don’t want to put yourself in that situation.
“She said, ‘You know what, that line you’re always using, I’d rather live one day as a lion than a thousand as a lamb, you’re an F‑ing Lamb,’ then walked downstairs.”
This exchange effectively changed Pitino’s mind, and he got on the phone to call Bill Martin, Michigan’s athletic director at the time. Unfortunately, Martin was playing squash at the time of the call and demanded he not be interrupted unless it was a life-or-death situation.
“Now I have to call the AD. It’s 12:00. He had a thing between 12:00 and 1:30. I think it was squash or racquetball, where he can never be disturbed unless it’s a matter of life and death. His assistant said, ‘Is it a matter of life and death?’
“I said, ‘No, it’s really, really important.’
“‘I’m sorry, I can’t put him through to you, do you want his voice mail?’
“So now I’m leaving this long voice mail. I rambled on saying it’s one of the greatest jobs in the world, but I have to go back home where my family grew up, my children grew up. I gave a long‑winded story. Never till the NIT when I got a chance to speak to him in person about it. I went to Louisville. It was the right move not necessarily for me. But it was the right move for my family.”