Twice before, the Louisville coach has guided teams to the promised land in the Crescent City - 1987 Providence and 1993 Kentucky. Both of those teams lost in the national semifinals - Providence to Syracuse; UK to Michigan's Fab Five.
Now, Pitino, who is seeking his second NCAA title - first at Louisville - hopes his third trip to the Final Four in New Orleans will be more charmed than his first two appearances.
"We're very excited to be heading to New Orleans," Pitino said. "This is the third time I've taken a team to New Orleans. I'm hoping three's a charm in terms of winning a championship. We had a difficult one with Michigan and the Fab Five losing in overtime and lost to Syracuse (in '87) after facing them three times."
Louisville arrived in New Orleans Wednesday and conducted their first shoot around in the Superdome and met with the media Thursday afternoon. The Cardinals are big underdogs against Kentucky in Saturday's Final Four matchup.
"Our players are pumped up," said Pitino. "We've had a terrific couple weeks with the Big East Tournament and played four outstanding teams in the NCAA Tournament. We're very over the top excited to be [here]."
Dominating DefenseRick Pitino made his first surprising run to the Final Four twenty five years ago with a hot, shooting Providence team.
This time, Pitino is back in the Final Four after making a surprising run through the West Regional. But the Cardinals didn't advance to New Orleans because of their three-point shooting marksmanship. Pitino's team instead has done it with gritty, hard nosed defense.
"This was probably the most surprising [Final Four run]," Pitino said. "I've always believed you had to be able to shoot the ball to get to a Final Four. This team is not the greatest shooting team so it probably is a bigger surprise than Providence because of that element."
The fact that Louisville is still playing on the final weekend of the college basketball season with his worst-ever three-point shooting team might have Pitino rethinking his Final Four-formula during the off-season.
"I believe shooting is a very, very important factor in getting to a Final Four. And we've done it a different way," Pitino said. "This team has great character, they work together. The adversity they've been through, being down late in a game doesn't bother them. They've been through the adversity mill and they fight hard all the time."
The Cardinals have confused opponents with a 'hybrid' zone that often switches to man in certain situations. When Florida shot the Cardinals out of the zone in the West Regional final, Louisville switched to man to man and shut the Gators down in the second half, limiting Billy Donovan's team to 0 of 9 threes after the break. UofL has held 11 of their last 20 foes below 40 percent shooting from the field.
"Talking is the main key," Chris Smith said. "If you don't talk it's hard to figure out ourselves what we're doing. It's hard for other teams to figure out what we're doing. Whatever player on the court makes a cut we've got to make sure we've got a man."
Louisville has been strong defensively all season, holding 23 foes to 60 or fewer points. During the NCAA run, Louisville held Michigan State, one of the most efficient offensive teams in the nation, to 44 points -- the lowest scoring output for a top-seed since the inception of the shot-clock in 1986.
Gorgui Dieng, who blocked seven shots against the Spartans, is a key reason why Louisville has been tough on defense. Chane Behanan's improved late in the season has taken the Cardinals defense up to an even higher level.
"Chane is a freshman and like most freshmen he'll make some defensive mistakes," Pitino said. "But when we had to go man to man [against UF] he did a great job defensively for us switching picking and rolls and locking people down."
Behanan said the keys for him have been learning Pitino's intricate defensive system while getting into great physical condition to be able to play it effectively.
"Just knowing where to go and where to bump to because sometimes I don't have to bump [were challenges]," Behanan said. "You have to know if there's a man in the corner -- then you have to bump to the corner. But if there's not a man in the corner you have to bump high so it was confusing.
"When I first got here I felt it was impossible to get from the wing to the middle of the [zone] but I had to get it done. That was the biggest adjustment. I'm in shape now and it doesn't bother me at all. And I found a little cheating thing to do."
Pitino HungrySome interesting comments by Rick Pitino to Dan Patrick illustrated how hungry and focused the Louisville coach is not only to beat Kentucky in the national semifinals on Saturday in New Orleans, but also on wining his first NCAA title with the Cardinals.
Here are a few highlights of Pitino's conversation with Patrick:
"We really want to win this badly. Louisville has won two of them and we want to win another one. It's a great group of guys. We feel good pressure. We're very satisfied with what we've accomplished, but once you're there we all want to win it badly…..I just want to keep the guys calm and loose because we're going up against a great, great basketball team."
On preparing to play in the Superdome:
"It's difficult to shoot in the dome. I've got a routine set up where, I was reading something about putting in golf, and we're going to start out in all of our drills in the beginning are going to start out from 5 to 7 feet. We're going to make a lot of shots from that distance then we're going to move out to 8-10 feet and work our way out. That's the way Bill Bradley warmed up with his shooting drills and we're going to try it. We're going to try every little thing because the dome can be overwhelming shooting the ball. We are a little used to it [shooting in a dome] playing the Carrier Dome, which is not as big as the Superdome."
On the coaching duel between Rick Pitino and John Calipari:
"The one thing you realize is it has little to do with the coaches and a lot to do with the players. The players make the difference in any situation. Coaches prepare [players] and motivate. Once the ball is thrown up it really is all about the guys. It has nothing to do with John, Bill Self or any of us. It really has to do with the players. It's all about recruiting, motivating and putting your game plan together."
On if he would retire if Louisville wins the championship:
"No. I'm having too much fun right now. I've got the right perspective on what this thing is all about. When you reach the Final Four and see your guys having such a great time you live vicariously through them. That experience is something you don't want to give up [and I won't] if I'm healthy enough to still to do it."