Rejuvenated by an upstart team that has exceeded all expectations, the Louisville coach enjoys every minute coaching his 14-ranked team – a fun bunch who plays hard, unselfishly and without ego.
Friday night, the fun continues for No. 3-seed Louisville against second-seed Notre Dame in the Big East Tournament semifinals. It's the first time the two rivals will meet in the Big East Tournament.
"In this day and age everybody uses cliches that sound nice but they're not necessarily true about playing for the name on the front of your chest and not playing for the name on the back of your chest, but this team epitomizes that," Pitino said. "They absolutely do not care about themselves and I think that starts from your best player and filters down. All these guys care about [is] winning."The Cardinals, who are making their third appearance in the Big East tourney semifinals in the past five seasons, dispatched 11-seeded Marquette, 81-56, Thursday night in quarterfinal action. Mike Marra led the way with 22 points, connecting on six three's, while Peyton Siva and Preston Knowles handed out 16 of Louisville's 24 assists.
Now, Louisville (24-8) gets another crack at Notre Dame, who is currently being projected as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament by ESPN's Joe Lunardi.
Pitino's Cardinals, who have won five of their last six games, felt they should have knocked off the Irish in South Bend on Feb. 9. Louisville played brilliantly and had Mike Brey's Irish on the ropes but couldn't finish the deal, falling 89-79 in overtime.
"We were disappointed we lost last time because we had the ball and didn't score and it was an overtime loss but you've got to give them credit they outplayed us in overtime," Pitino said.
Ben Hansbrough, the Big East Player of the Year, and Tim Abromitis, combined for 48 points in the first game between the teams. Carlton Scott scored nine of his 16 points in overtime as the Irish scored the first 14 points of the extra frame. Louisville played without Rakeem Buckles and Gorgui Dieng in the earlier matchup.
"I told these guys before that game that not since 1996 did I walk into a place and feel as confident," Pitino said. "In '96 I had a reason to feel confident. I had eight pros. But the way these guys play with the sacrifices and the dedication, we know we're not going to be flat, we know we could lose but we know our team is going to bring it."
Kyle Kuric led Louisville with 28 points, including a highlight-reel dunk to end the first half. Terrence Jennings added 14 points and Preston Knowles had 13 in that game. Louisville will look to improve on two aspects from the first meeting – rebounding and free throw shooting. Notre Dame out-rebounded Louisville 42-30, and made 20 of 28 free throws. Louisville attempted just 11 free throws, making eight.
"Notre Dame is tough, they're skilled, they put on a passing clinic each night, but we're a good passing team as well, it will be a good match up," said Pitino.
Though both teams routed their quarterfinal opponent Thursday night – Notre Dame beat No. 7-seeded Cincinnati 89-51 – tonight's semifinal matchup figures to be a close affair. Five of the last nine games between Louisville and Notre Dame ended in overtime.
If Louisville can figure out a way to stymie Hansbrough, the Cardinals could find themselves advancing to Saturday's Big East Tournament championship game against the winner of the Syracuse-UConn game. Pitino compared Notre Dame's senior guard to Billy Donovan, who led Pitino's Providence squad to the 1987 NCAA Final Four.
"Hansbrough is a deeper shooter, though Billy the Kid was quicker with the ball," Pitino said. "Their toughness is the same. He truly did deserve to be one of the premiere guards and he's going to have an outstanding NBA career. Hanbrough has a good first step and he runs the pick and roll really well. There are similarities in how they dish it at teammates."