INDIANAPOLIS (WDRB) -- Talk to University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino for any length of time about any weighty matter -- basketball or otherwise -- and you're likely to hear two names: John Wooden and Mike Krzyzewski.
Pitino is a walking Wooden quote book these days, and he calls Krzyzewski Wooden's ideological successor. I pegged the number of times I've heard him make the comparison at a couple of dozen. Pitino says it's more.
"I've said it about 50 times. I'll make this 51. Coach Wooden, I felt, was the greatest teacher of any sport of any game. And Coach K is the modern‑day John Wooden," Pitino said. ". . . I couldn't put anybody on any higher point than those two gentlemen."
Today's meeting in the Midwest Regional final is, of course, a game between two programs, and two teams of players striving to reach the Final Four. But it is just as much a meeting of two coaches whose profiles loom as large as any over the landscape of college basketball the past two decades.
How's this for history? If Krzyzewski wins, he ties John Wooden with his 12th Final Four berth. If Pitino wins, he passes Denny Crum, Adolph Rupp and Tom Izzo in number of Final Fours.
Krzyzewski has won more games than any coach in college basketball history. Pitino is the greatest producer of college basketball coaches of his generation, and perhaps ever. And he's won his fair share, as well.
But more than that links them. They coached in a game many believe to be the best in college basketball history, an overtime victory by Duke over Pitino's Kentucky team in the East Regional Final in 1992, a game settled by the iconic buzzer-beater by Christian Laettner.
When the two met reporters Saturday to talk about Sunday's game, the subject was at the forefront of questions -- and answers, even if the current players weren't alive when the game was played.
"Rick and I are real close friends," Krzyzewski said. "I think he's one of the best. One of the best ever. And our relationship was good before that game. After the game, it's grown exponentially. I think when the basketball gods deem you worthy enough to put you in a great moment, sometimes you're placed in that moment as a winner, and sometimes you lose. But sometimes the loser shines more than the winner. I thought his‑‑ how he reacted and has reacted since made him shine. And I respect that. I think he‑‑ if I'm placed in that situation, I would hope that I would be able to do it at the level that he did it.
"Rick's the kind of guy that he knows he's good and it's okay for someone else to be good. And then if the other guy who's good wins, you shake his hand and you know you'll be good and you'll get another chance to be good. I like that about him. Tom's like that. Tom Izzo's like that. And they're two of the guys that I really respect a great deal in our profession."
The men have faced each other only twice, on that day in 1992 and last November, when they played in the championship of the Battle 4 Atlantis. But they have kept up with each other and talked on occasion. And they have found themselves speaking a bit more frequently lately. They spent time together in the Bahamas at the tournament, and again spoke during the discussions to bring Louisville into the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Both have come to realize how strongly that 1992 game links them.
"I have thought about how important (that game) is," Krzyzewski said. "It's one of those moments in time that helped define our sport. When I've talked to Rick about it, we realize we were the lucky guys. We had different roles at that time, but we were both lucky to be there.
"And, to me, even though his team lost in a very heartbreaking fashion, the most heartbreaking fashion there could be, it really‑‑ that group that had gotten them there was elevated even more. Like they had started in dirt, you know, and all of a sudden they were in the highest moment and they were knocked back. And Kentucky honored them forever, forever. Just some amazing things have happened as a result of that game. Again, I feel privileged to have been a part of it. And he and I have ‑‑ it's like one of those things where you have this ‑‑ you shared something that no one else could share. So we'll always be real close as a result of that. I really like that about our relationship, that we both realize that."
Pitino said he's watched that game five times all the way through. He said he was crushed with the defeat, until he watched the tape of the game the next day and realized how well his team had played.
"Well, we've been friends from that point on," Pitino said. "Both of us looked at the game a lot different than the Kentucky fans or, for that matter, the Duke fans. Both of us just sat back and coached and watched an incredible offensive display. Even when we played the overtime without Mash, it was a great game. Anytime you write a whole book about one game, it's kind of special.
"We came on the losing side, but I've had the Kentucky fans always say it's one of the worst losses. To me, it's one of the best losses I've ever had. A bad loss was Providence last year by 31 points. A bad loss is something where your guys play terrible, you don't play. It was a great loss because my guys played almost a perfect game and just had the wrong ending for us. But it was one of the greatest basketball games ever played because it was so high‑powered with great play. One great play after another. That was fun to be part of, and I've always loved Coach K from before that moment to today. I think he's everything our game stands for in a good way."
When it came time to talk about what this game might mean, for the coaches or their teams, neither man was so forthcoming. There's an immense amount on the line. The winner takes another significant step forward in history. Krzyzewski brushed that notion aside, saying, "I don't think about history in the present."
But they were conscious of college basketball watching, with an expectant eye, even.
"I think it's like a national championship game," Krzyzewski said. "Both teams have had great years, and the two years ‑‑ the two seasons of the two teams could match anybody's in the country. And to have ‑‑ just to have it work out that we're playing right now against one another, I think it's great for college basketball. I hope we both live up to the game."