ORLANDO, Fla. (WDRB) -- How similar is Manhattan coach Steve Masiello's coaching style to Louisville coach Rick Pitino's? With their teams scheduled to meet Thursday at 9:50 p.m. in the NCAA Midwest Regional, the men got up at their separate press conferences Wednesday and told the same joke.
"We changed everything this week," said Masiello, who has served as assistant coach, player and even ball boy to Pitino. "We're not pressing at all, we're putting the triangle‑and‑two, box‑and‑one or one‑three‑one, we're running all five‑out motion, so we are going to run a whole new style that we've implemented, so anything he's seen on film, just scratch it."
Unbeknownst to Masiello, a few hours earlier, Pitino said, "We've changed almost every attack we have for this game. We've changed all our plays and calls and defenses because we know he knows us so well. So if I was him, I would just be thinking a lot and not sleep because of all of the changes we are making."
It's a cute storyline, if you don't happen to be involved. But frankly for Pitino it wasn't funny. He was upset on Selection Sunday, but it had nothing to do with his team's seed. He hadn't spoken to the media until sitting behind the NCAA podium Wednesday, and even three days later was a little rankled when talking about it. He said playing Manhattan bothers him.
A lot of us thought he was upset at being a No. 4 seed. Instead, he was upset at having to play against Masiello. And to understand that, you have to understand how he follows his former assistant. If he watched every Minnesota game his son, Richard, coached this season, he also watched every Manhattan game. At a press conference a little while back, he was asked if he'd watched U of L's women play at Connecticut. No, he said, he'd watched Manhattan beat Iona.
At this stage of his life, Pitino has begun to pour himself into some of these people he helped bring into the business. The unabashed affection he voiced for Masiello and Billy Donovan Wednesday makes that unmistakable.
"I think that sometimes committees make poor decisions in who they put you against because Manhattan, I happened to work with the young man (Masiello) for six years, coached him at Kentucky," Pitino said. "He was my ball boy at the Knicks. And I don't think that's right for either one of us. I think the pairings sometimes lack common sense. . . . I'm okay with the seedings, I'm not okay with the match‑ups. But the selection committee is very fair, very honorable, very honest people, so I can't protest too much because they're doing the best job that they can do. Maybe they're a bunch of soccer ADs, I don't know."
Masiello understood what he was talking about.
"All I cared about was where Manhattan was going (Selection Sunday), and once I saw Manhattan come up, the next thing I was worried about was where Coach Pitino and Louisville were going, and I was going to cheer my tail off for them, wherever they went," Masiello said. "To see them come up and then see us come up against them, it takes a little fun out of it because this is fun. This is basketball. This is great. And it took a little fun out of it because it went from being a great story for me, that I'm living out, to now I've got to take all my emotion, so now I can't call Coach Pitino for advice, now I can't rely on him to give me some pointers, and it just became business, because now I have to go against the one guy that means so much to me.
"I would have played any of the 67 teams and been fine with it because there's no emotion involved, not because of the basketball aspect, because they're terrific teams, but the emotion is what makes it hard, and you have to cut that off right away," Masiello said. "So that's why I was just upset about it. For the media, it's great. For the fans I'm sure it's great. For everyone else, and I can't speak for Coach, but for me, there's so many emotional attachments involved to Coach Pitino from where I come from going back to 1989, it's just that's not fun for me going against someone that I have to try to ‑‑ now try to beat and almost in my mind think negatively about. It's hard for me to do that."
The coaches aren't the only ones who had a bit of a hard time thinking about it. You don't have to make a trip over to Fantasyland for a mind-blowing exercise in Orlando this weekend. Just head over to the Amway Center.
Just think about how history might have changed had Russ Smith done what Pitino originally wanted him to do after his freshman season -- transfer to Manhattan.
No Final Four in 2012. No NCAA Championship in 2013. No Russdiculous. Or memories. Or Smith's particular brand of madness.
Masiello couldn't help but think about that -- and many other things -- when he saw Louisville's name pop up opposite his own team's in the Midwest Regional on Selection Sunday.
"Do I wish we had Russ Smith?" Masiello said with a smile, noting that he and Smith's dad talk all the time. "I'd love to have Russ Smith play for me. That being said, I don't think either of us would change one thing with the way it's gone. He's turned out to be the best college basketball player in the country, definitely the best guard. He's going down as maybe the all‑time winningest player to ever wear a Louisville uniform. He's responsible for them going to two Final Fours. I think he's brought a new side to Coach Pitino, back from a fun and love and just a kind of having‑fun attitude, and I think we've developed some very good guards at our place where I don't know if Russ was there if (we would have). . . . So I think both of us wouldn't change a thing, but it would have been some story had it have happened."
It's a story Pitino doesn't like to think about, especially when he talks about Smith now, and what Smith has meant to him, and to his career, and to U of L's program.
"He's still the same lovable character he was when he first came in," Pitino said. "He has made it so enjoyable for me for four years in coaching him. He's brought such laughter into my life. He's brought so many great memories into my life. . . . His innocence is something to behold, that he's just such an innocent young man even though he's from the streets of Brooklyn, and to still have that innocence is an amazing thing to me. He's just been so enjoyable to coach. I could leave tomorrow and say, boy, I just had so many great experiences coaching one person. His laughter in tense situations is just great. I don't know how Steve can scout him. I don't know how any opponent can scout him because he pays no attention to what I want him to do."
Smith's emotions are wrapped up in both teams, too.
"Their guys are extremely talented," Smith said. "I know each one of the guys on their team personally. (Ashton) Pankey was at Maryland, and I know (George) Beamon was one of the guys just like me who was under recruited, and he's from AAU. I played AAU ball with Rhamel Brown. He was under‑recruited, as well. Mikey Alvarado played in my league at All Hallows. He was under‑recruited as well. So a bunch of those guys on that team, even a guy like RaShawn Stores who's my cousin, under recruited as well. . . . I look at their team and I see a mirror-image of our team. And I look at those guys and I see myself."
Both coaches made light of scouting the other. Masiello took the podium and said, "I don't know anything about them." Pitino said, "I am afraid of playing him. He's known every, single thing I've done since I've been 28. . . . Steve runs everything we run. He presses like we press. His offenses are the same, his out‑of‑bounds plays are the same. The only thing he does differently is he wears ridiculous suits. Outside of that, we're one and the same. He comes out with ‑‑ he must go to Madison Avenue and just come out with the newest things all the time. I don't know where he gets the tuxedo look with the roundabout lapels and everything. He's hanging around Little Italy too much."
But while they're laughing, the game isn't quite as easy as it might have been, for a coach who wanted to root for his protege's first NCAA Tournament win, and the young coach who will try to get it, against a man he owes nearly everything.