BOZICH | Conference Tournaments Bring Out the Best in Pitino - WDRB 41 Louisville News

BOZICH | Conference Tournaments Bring Out the Best in Pitino

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Rick Pitino will try to win his 12th conference tournament title in Memphis this week. Rick Pitino will try to win his 12th conference tournament title in Memphis this week.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Odds are that this statistic wasn't something the Naismith Hall of Fame considered before it made Rick Pitino a member last year. But it's Naismith-worthy.

Pitino's career winning percentage in conference tournaments is 78 percent. His overall winning percentage as a college basketball coach is 74 percent.

This week, conference tournament week, is absolutely Pitino's sweet spot. He's better this week than he is in November, December, January and February.

He's won 11 conference tournaments while competing in four leagues – the ECAC, Southeastern Conference, Conference USA and the Big East.

The only guys that I have uncovered with more conference tournament victories are also Hall of Famers – Mike Krzyzewski of Duke and North Carolina's Dean Smith, the masters of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Pitino has won his 11 tournament titles in 24 tries. Smith went 13 for 36 and Coach K is 13 for 33 in the ACC.

Pitino can stretch his legacy to a fifth league this week when Louisville opens play in the American Athletic Conference Thursday afternoon in Memphis against either Rutgers or South Florida. Memphis works for Pitino. He won two SEC tourneys in Memphis at UK and another C-USA title in Memphis at U of L.

Next season he'll move into his sixth league, Planet Krzyzewski, the ACC. That should be fun.

Why is his record – 45 wins, 13 losses, five SEC conference titles, three in the Big East, including the last two – something that separates Pitino from other guys?

Because conference tournaments matter to Pitino. He demands that they matter to his players, too. The preparation stirs his hunger to compete. He celebrates the sudden-death format. He is convinced that it prepares his teams for the tournament that really matters when it begins next week.

"For me, I don't know why the record's good," Pitino said. "But conference tournaments, some coaches don't put great relevancy into it.

"For me, it's always been extremely relevant because I think it's a dress rehearsal to get ready for the (NCAA) tournament in terms of a Thursday-Saturday or Friday-Sunday games, in terms of preparation in back-to-back games.

"I think it's really important … I've always felt it was really important to play well in the conference tournament, going into it."

There was one exception that the world remembers: That was 1996. Pitino's team at Kentucky was the only one that he took to the SEC Tournament and then left without the trophy. When the Wildcats struggled with Mississippi State, Pitino was fine with letting Antoine Walker sit as Kentucky stumbled to an 11-point loss. That team won the NCAA title.

That Kentucky team was also assured of a Number One seed, regardless of what happened in New Orleans that week. This Louisville team has little chance to earn a top seed.

Although the Cards are ranked second nationally in Ken Pomeroy's computer formula, second in Jeff Sagarin's computer formula and fifth in the human polls, they are not showing up as a one- or two-seed on most of the NCAA Tournament bracket projections. They're a three or a four.

That's another reason Pitino says his team has plenty to play for in Memphis. The Cards would likely have to beat a pair of Top 25 teams to win the AAC Tournament.

"We started as a top 10 team, and ended as a top 10," he said. "The thing that's been impressive is we don't have a bad loss. At all.

"Our strength of schedule hasn't been overly dynamic, but we're playing very good basketball at the end. And I feel very comfortable. I don't exaggerate our worth. If we win this tournament, we'll be a two seed. If we don't, we'll be a three- or a four-seed."

And if Pitino and his team deliver in Memphis, it will be his 12th conference tournament title in 25 tries. The Naismith Hall of Fame people should be aware of that.

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