Why Rick Pitino's Ability to Adapt Is the Key to Louisville's Success

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Why Rick Pitino's Ability to Adapt Is the Key to Louisville's Success

It was clear on Saturday night that Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall’s game plan was being executed well enough to take down Louisville.

Some coaches in Rick Pitino’s position would totally scrap what they were doing and try something different. Many others would continue to try to pound a square peg in a round hole.

Pitino did neither. He made some subtle adjustments—putting the ball in Luke Hancock’s hands, for one—and he also stuck with what his team always does by continuing to press. His press was not effective in creating turnovers, as it usually does, but it wasn’t hurting the Cardinals either. It’s also what his team knows and how his players are used to playing, so he didn’t want to change that.

It was a display from Pitino of self-awareness. Hancock, who scored 20 points, helped rally his team. The full-court pressure eventually worked, and Louisville survived. 

Pitino is now one win away from his second NCAA title—he would become the first to do it at two schools—and it’s appropriate that he would be the coach to pull it off.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Pitino has won wherever he has been in the college game—his years with the Boston Celtics are the only smear on his resume on the court—and he’s done so because of an incredible confidence in how he wants to play along with an ability to adapt ever so slightly.

College basketball coaches are careful by nature.

Wonder why scoring is down? The main reason is the physical play, but another is that offensive rebounding has steadily declined as coaches have figured out that the best way to prevent fast-breaks is to drop back without attacking the boards. 

That desire to control everything leads a lot of coaches to rarely gamble. It is what made coaches at one time hesitant to let their players fire away from the three-point line.

Not Pitino. He has always pressed. And when the three-point line was introduced in the 1986-87 season, Providence College shot nearly twice as many threes as the national average and went all the way to the Final Four by being different.  

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Pitino was innovative in a profession that has always been conservative.

When he took over Kentucky in 1989, he inherited a team that was used to playing slow and not taking chances. The year before under Eddie Sutton, Kentucky averaged 69.4 points and attempted 9.3 threes per game. Pitino’s first team pushed the pace and averaged 88.8 points and got up nearly 29 threes per game.

Current Florida coach Billy Donovan, who was a grad assistant on that team and had played for Pitino at Providence, told Sports Illustrated that year:

This is all déjà vu for me. Coach's preparation is incredible. He doesn't just know the game, he attacks it.

Some coaches are too stubborn to try something different. Pitino was stubborn in that he had to be different.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Eventually, however, Pitino looked at the team he had at Kentucky in the mid-90s and adapted his style to fit the personnel. Two of his best players were inside guys Antoine Walker and Walter McCarty, so the Wildcats shot less threes.

This season the strength of Louisville is the driving ability of Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, neither of which are great outside shooters.

Take a look at well and how often Pitino's teams have shot the three since the line was introduced in 1987. (Note: The third column is the percentage of field-goal attempts from deep and the fourth column is the national average each season.)


3-point % 3PA/FGA 3PA/FGA Natl. Avg.
Providence '87 42.1 30.4 15.7
Kentucky '90 34.7 41.0 21.5
Kentucky '91 33.8 37.9 25.4
Kentucky '92 35.7 40.0 24.0
Kentucky '93 39.4 39.5 25.4
Kentucky '94
35.1 39.0 27.2
Kentucky '95 37.5 33.3 28.8
Kentucky '96 39.8 27.2 29.2
Kentucky '97 36.9 29.5 29.9
Louisville '02 33.6 38.4 32.0
Louisville '03 36.2 38.6 32.0
Louisville '04 33.8 40.6 32.7
Louisville '05 40.0 42.1 33.0
Louisville '06 35.5 41.3 33.2
Louisville '07 33.2 38.7 34.2
Louisville '08 35.0 38.7 34.4
Louisville '09 36.9 37.8 33.1
Louisville '10 33.7 39.6 32.6
Louisville '11 36.2 40.8 33.0
Louisville '12 31.8 32.1 32.9
Louisville '13 32.9 30.1 33.0

 

Similar to how Pitino adapted to whatever means necessary on Saturday against Wichita State, he did the same in the mid-90s and with his last two Louisville teams. They are clear outliers and some of his most successful teams. 

In his press conference on Sunday in Atlanta, Pitino said that he tells his son all the time not to make the same mistakes in coaching that he’s made.

His son’s response?

“Do you press too much?”

“No, wasn’t humble enough,’” Pitino said. 

And that’s how he’s gotten back to the top—with a press that he will never abandon and the awareness that every once in a while it’s time to try something slightly different offensively. 

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