ATLANTA — Playing hunches does not get a coach into the Hall of Fame. It certainly didn't get Rick Pitino to the threshold.
Looking after every detail does. So does recruiting NBA-caliber talent, then slotting those players into a system, conditioning and teaching them and, finally, making them believe that winning is the by-product of relentless defense.
That's been Pitino's M.O. everywhere he's been, first at Boston University, then at Providence, Kentucky and now Louisville, and even through the two NBA stints at New York and Boston sandwiched in between. That's why he'll walk into the hall when the vote becomes official Monday morning with 850-something wins on his resume and after a 72-68 win over Wichita State in the national semifinal – with maybe a second NCAA title to come later that night in the championship game against Michigan.
But on Saturday, in one of the biggest games of Pitino's storied career, the 60-year-old Louisville coach cracked his own mold wide open with a scheme born partly out of necessity but mostly out of desperation.
The biggest story of the week leading up to the game against Wichita State was about a kid from Louisville who wasn't even going to play. Kevin Ware, the first guard off the Cardinals' bench all season, broke his leg in a freak on-court accident last weekend, leaving a gaping hole in Pitino's planned rotation. Much of the Louisville press and its pressure defense rely on starting guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith to bring the heat, and the longer the game stretched out and the fouls piled up, the less that pair looked up to the task.
Trailing Wichita State 47-35 with 13:36 left to play, Pitino finally turned to a walk-on, Tim Henderson, and told him to start shooting. The junior hadn't played more than seven minutes during the tourney and only 63 minutes the entire season. One 3-pointer from Henderson a half-minute later, then a second 3 some 40 seconds after that and suddenly the Cardinals were back in the game.
"I told y'all about Tim before the camera was in my face," Ware laughed afterward. "I kind of felt like Tim was doing enough on defense to stay in the game, just doing the little things, you know. But he's a great player, honestly. We go at it against Russ and Peyton all day in practice, so I really wasn't surprised, honestly."
Easy for him to say.
"The players said they weren't surprised about him making those back-to-back threes," Pitino said. "They're being very kind. I was shocked."
Yet Pitino's hunch-playing didn't stop there. The second one, though, was more like a premonition.
Luke Hancock, another junior who fell into his lap after transferring from George Mason, wasn't a big part of Louisville's plans when the season began. Pitino was so impressed with his toughness that he made Hancock a co-captain and brought him off the bench, mostly as a 3-point specialist. When his shots didn't fall early, there was plenty of grumbling about how many minutes Hancock was getting at the expense of Wayne Blackshear and others.
But Pitino wouldn't be deterred. And he was rewarded not just with 3-pointers from Hancock – who finished with 20 points, 14 in the second half – but with a couple of slashing drives to the basket that rocked the Shockers defense back onto their heels.
"If you said to me, `Is Luke a top three player on the team?' I would say, `Without question.' Then you may say, `Why doesn't he start?'" Pitino said, without waiting for an answer. "We don't want to get him in foul trouble."
And once the Cardinals got their noses in front, 56-55 at the 6:30 mark on a 3-pointer from Hancock, all that preparation Pitino excels at turned out to be enough to keep Louisville there at the final buzzer.
For the Louisville press to succeed it has to start on the in-bounds play, and once the Cardinals started making baskets, it took its toll. The Shockers went more than 26 minutes – from late in the first half until the 6:21 mark of the second – without turning the ball over once. But over the next minute and a half, the Cardinals forced three, two from Shockers freshman guard Fred VanVleet, and suddenly Louisville looked more like the No. 1 overall seed again coming into the tournament.
"I felt really, really good until we had that flurry of turnovers," Shockers coach Greg Marshall said. "I didn't realize it was five in seven possessions, which is certainly big.
"You know, they do that to everyone," he added glumly. "We were looking really good there for 32 minutes or whatever it was."
It was almost long enough.
"We're one of the better pressing teams in the country. They had four turnovers. We were giving them everything but the kitchen sink, and they wouldn't turn it over," Pitino recalled.
"What happens in the press, if you play an extremely well-coached team, you may have one run per game. If you're going against guys that are freshman, not great ball-handlers," he added, "then you may have three or four runs."
What Louisville had, to be fair, were more like surges. A 3-pointer from Hancock nudged the Cardinals ahead to 65-60 with 2:06 left and they made just enough free throws to hold off Wichita State.
"You're elated when you win, so excited to be in a championship game," Pitino said finally. "But there's always a part of you that looks at the other team and says, `They played their hearts out.' There's always a part of you that really wants to win, but you appreciate your opponent."
Enough in this case to force Pitino way out of his comfort zone, anyway.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.