Is Rick Pitino the Best Coach in College Basketball Right Now?

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Is Rick Pitino the Best Coach in College Basketball Right Now?

Rick Pitino had a pretty good Monday.

He started the day by being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, and ended the night holding the NCAA Championship trophy, his first with the Louisville Cardinals and the second of his illustrious coaching career. 

It seems impossible that with so many great coaches in the history of the game, Pitino is the first in NCAA history to win the national basketball championship with two different schools. He was already the first men's coach to take three different schools to the Final Four, but cutting down the nets with two different schools puts him in a pantheon of coaching legends reserved for a select few.

Monday night's victory begs this question (and probably answers it too): Is Pitino the best college basketball coach in America?

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Right now, given the performance of his Louisville Cardinals the last two years and Pitino's penchant for building programs, it almost has to be a yes.

Moreover, Pitino's coaching accomplishments re-introduce the question of whether it's harder to create a culture of success at different schools or sustain that level of excellence at the same school.

Note: Before Duke fans go nuts, this is not a slight to Mike Krzyzewski, who is one of the two or three greatest coaches in the history of the sport, nor is it a slight to the likes of Jim Boeheim or Roy Williams. We will get to the comparisons in a moment.

 

Pitino's Career

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Pitino has 662 career wins as a head coach in the college ranks, spread between stops at Boston University (91-51), Providence College (42-23), Kentucky (219-50) and Louisville (310-111), with multiple trips to the NBA breaking up the college timeline.

Had Pitino not left multiple times for the NBA, it's hard to know what school he would have even been coaching, but his 664 wins at the college level project out to more than 800 wins (he averaged over 24 wins per season) had he not spent six years floundering with the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics. 

Still, Pitino's 664 victories and .735 winning percentage are certainly Hall-of-Fame worthy without even considering how he would have done in college over that time spent in the NBA. Hell, without those stints in the pros, maybe he's not the same coach he is today.

Regardless, the time away from college lends a bit of perspective to his win totals when compared to other coaching greats.

Oh, and how is this for interesting: There are just 13 coaches in the history of college basketball to take at least two different schools to the Final Four. Just six of those coaches have been to a Final Four in the last 25 years. Just two—if we still count John Calipari's vacated Final Four trips at UMass and Memphis—have taken three different schools to the season's final weekend.

Again, it's not fair to knock Coach K or Boeheim for only going to the Final Four with one school, especially considering Krzyzewski has taken Duke to a Final Four 11 times in his career—just one fewer trip than John Wooden at UCLA—but Pitino doing it with three different schools is simply remarkable. 

 

Pitino and the Current Greats

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It would be hard for anyone to argue that the best active coaches in the game today aren't the aforementioned Pitino, Krzyzewski, Boeheim, Williams and Tom Izzo.

There are some other fantastic coaches in the game today, but none deserve to be in the same conversation with these five, though I'm sure someone will try to make a case for Calipari or even Bob Huggins, who has 710 career wins and trips to the Final Four with two different schools.

Those two aside, nobody else is even close from an overall career standpoint, though Billy Donovan could get there with time.

Izzo has taken Michigan State to the Final Four six times in his career, winning one title. He has nearly 450 wins, boasts a winning percentage of .712 and has won seven Big Ten titles.

Boeheim has the second-most Division I wins in college basketball history with 920, all at Syracuse. He has taken the Orange to the Final Four in four different decades, making trips in 1987, 1996, 2003 and 2013, winning one title.

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Roy Williams has gone to the Final Four seven times in his career, making four trips with the Kansas Jayhawks and three with the North Carolina Tar Heels. He has two titles, both with North Carolina. Williams may be the most comparable coach to Pitino with his success at two different schools. He has 700 career victories and an outstanding .795 win percentage, the third-best in NCAA Division I history. 

Williams and the Tar Heels last made the Final Four in 2009.

Krzyzewski has all the career accolades. He has 957 career wins, the most of any Division-I coach. He has 11 trips to the Final Four and four national championships with Duke. He also has a shiny gold medal from last year's Olympics.

It seems impossible to suggest anyone—including Pitino—is a better coach than Coach K. To be honest, I feel a tad ridiculous making that claim.

The thing is, it has to be harder to do what Pitino has done at multiple schools than what Coach K has done at one. They both created the culture of excellence at their schools—Krzyzewski essentially from scratch when he went from Army to Duke, while Pitino had to reboot Louisville's tradition after a few lean years under Denny Crum.

If we're having the conversation of the best coach of all time, Coach K is one of three—with Wooden and Dean Smith—in the discussion. But if we're talking about the best coach in college basketball right now, it's hard to make the case that Krzyzewski is better than Pitino.

 

The Best Coach Right Now

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Duke's last title was the 2010 national championship. Since the start of that season—one full recruiting cycle from then to now—the Blue Devils are 124-23 with one title, two trips to the Elite 8, three trips to the Sweet Sixteen and one, ahem, "second-round" exit. Duke has one regular-season ACC title and two tournament titles in that span.

In the same timeframe, Louisville is 110-38 with one national title, two trips to the Final Four and two first-/second-round exits. Louisville has one regular-season Big East title and two tournament titles in the last four seasons. 

Advantage: Coach K.

However, when we just look at the last two seasons—the right now of all right now conversations—Louisville has gone to back-to-back Final Fours, winning one national title to go with two Big East tournament titles, while Duke lost to a No. 15 seed before falling to Louisville in the Elite 8 this season.

Advantage: Coach P.

 

In-Game Expertise

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Truth be told, Louisville got to back-to-back Final Fours and won the 2013 national championship with great teams, but not necessarily great talent.

There have been some fantastic players at Louisville over the past two years, but time and time again, Pitino found a way to coach his kids beyond their physical abilities, beating several teams with more raw basketball talent on the floor.

Pitino is certainly a better coach than he is a recruiter, or perhaps Pitino has been able to recruit the types of players—Peyton Siva is a perfect example—that may not have the most talent, but he knows he can coach. 

Talent aside, what has truly set Pitino apart, especially during this season's tournament games, is his ability to manage a game as it develops.  

In the Big East Championship against Boeheim's Orange, Pitino's Cardinals were down as much as 16 points (45-29) with less than 16 minutes left in the title game. Not only did Louisville overcome that deficit, they dismantled Syracuse over the last 10 minutes of the game, winning 78-61 and outscoring its opponent 49-16 to win the last Big East crown.

There was no panic.

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In the Final Four, Louisville fell behind Wichita State 8-0 to start the national semifinal. Despite fighting back to keep the game close in the first half, the Cardinals trailed by 12 points with 13:39 to play, 47-35. 

The Cardinals, led by Pitino's unrivaled ability to manage a depleted roster in foul trouble, outscored the Shockers 37-21 down the stretch, earning a spot in the title game on Monday night. 

Again, there was no panic.

In the championship game, the Cardinals again found themselves down by double digits, trailing Michigan and hot-shooting freshman Spike Albrecht by 12 points, 35-33, with 3:22 to play in the first half.

In a blitz, Louisville cut the lead to one, led by 14 straight points from tournament MOP Luke Hancock. The Cardinals actually took the lead with seconds to go in the first half before giving a one-point advantage back to Michigan at the break.

In the second half, Pitino pushed all the right buttons, not afraid to sit dynamic scorer Russ Smith for long stretches when he wasn't helping the team. The Cardinals were victorious, 82-76, over Michigan in one of the best national title games in the history of the event.

Why? In large part because Pitino, and his players, did not panic.

 

Managing Emotions

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Of course, the was no better in-game coaching performance over the entire year—in any sport—than what Pitino did in the regional final victory over Duke. 

Guard Kevin Ware fell to the floor in a heap after trying to block a Duke three-point attempt with more than six-and-a-half minutes left in the first half and Louisville up by just one point. We all remember the scene: the faces of the Louisville players crying while Ware lay on the court with one of the worst injuries imaginable. Pitino was crying, too. Hell, most of us were crying.

But somehow, despite the emotions, he was able to keep his kids composed, not only pacing Duke the rest of the half, but going into halftime with a lead. It was nothing short of amazing. 

Whatever Pitino said at halftime clearly worked. There was no panic, that's for sure.

The Cardinals missed Ware's presence on the court the rest of the game, but Pitino managed his players' minutes to perfection, mixing and matching his lineups to pull away from Duke early in the second half, summarily destroying one of the best teams in the country, 85-63, to get to the Final Four.

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Forget about all the stats and records and trips to the Final Four. If there was a moment in this tournament where it became clear how great a coach Pitino is, it was the way his team reacted after Ware got hurt—in that game and the two games that followed.

Pitino didn't even get on the ladder to cut down the net after winning the title. He asked one of his players to cut him a piece, then had the basket lowered so Ware could be the last person to cut down the first net. 

It's hard to imagine any coach handling this season, especially the last 10 days, any better.

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