Marquette coach: 6-1 vs. Pitino
When Rick Pitino swaggered into Conference USA in 2001, the league salivated at the thought of the heavyweight coaching matchups.
Pitino vs. John Calipari? Huge. Pitino vs. Bob Huggins? Even bigger. The Final Four résumés, the forceful personalities, the sideline histrionics -- these would be the glamour games that brought in a national audience and raised the league's profile.
Three-and-a-half seasons later, those matchups have not disappointed. During his Louisville tenure Pitino is 2-3 against Calipari and 4-4 against Huggins, with several of those games among the most memorable in C-USA's 10-year history.
But the one C-USA coach who has stared down The Rick isn't the slickster from Memphis or the screamer from Cincinnati. It's a guy who came into the league in 1999 with no rep, no seven-figure salary and no head-coaching experience. The one C-USA coach who owns Pitino is the one C-USA coach to take the league to a Final Four.
It's the guy whose Marquette team comes to Freedom Hall Wednesday night: Tom Crean.
Crean is a stunning 6-1 against Pitino. Five of those wins are by single digits, most of them were decided in the final seconds and some of them were tinged with acrimony.
(Though there are signs of détente between the two rabid competitors. Pitino's quote Tuesday, when asked whether there is a personal rivalry between he and Crean: "I'm too old for that, and he's too young for that. I have a lot of respect for Marquette as a team and him as a coach.")
Nobody else who's played Pitino regularly has come close to owning him like Crean. Not Nolan Richardson (4-6 against Pitino), not Tubby Smith (2-7), not John Thompson (4-2), not Jim Boeheim (6-3). And nobody has done what Crean has done: beaten Pitino on his home court three straight seasons.
Three years ago Marquette nipped Pitino's first Louisville team in the Hall, 75-71. Two years ago the Golden Eagles rallied from 19 points down to win a stunner, 78-73, behind a virtuoso performance by Dwyane Wade. Last year forward Steve Novak threw in eight three-pointers, some of them seemingly with his eyes closed, in a 77-70 Marquette win.
But the most recent Marquette-Louisville game, in Milwaukee, was the capper. Last March a reeling Cardinals team dug down to play an inspired game, taking an 80-77 lead into the final seconds. Then Marquette freshman Dameon Mason made a jump shot and was fouled just before the buzzer. His free throw with under a second left won the game.
"To watch that," Pitino said, "is painful."
On Wednesday, Crean will try to make it four straight in the Hall and 7-1 against Pitino, again from the underdog vantage point. At 14-4 but owning only one take-notice win, over rival Wisconsin, Marquette needs this game more than No. 12 Louisville.
“ He's the college version of Steve Nash. He makes everyone around him better. ” — Rick Pitino on Travis Diener
But given recent history, it's hard to imagine the Cardinals not wanting it more.
"This is one they have to have," Louisville senior forward Ellis Myles said. "They'll be really jacked up, come out to get us. We'll be ready."
Ask Crean about this extraordinary run of success against a future Hall of Famer and he rhetorically shrugs. He's smart enough to know that the eve of a major road game is no time for chest-pounding.
"The players have executed our gameplans very well," Crean said of the Louisville series. "We've been fortunate to be shooting well. And the one constant in all those games for us has been very good point guard play."
The point guard in every one of those victories has been Travis Diener. He's a physically underwhelming gym rat from Fond du Lac, Wisc., who probably wouldn't have been on Pitino's recruiting radar -- but who might never leave Pitino's nightmares.
"He's the college version of Steve Nash," Pitino said. "He makes everyone around him better. ... He's one of my favorite players in the country. I like the way he plays, his heart."
Diener, on pace to become the leading scorer in Marquette's gilded history, has possibly made more clutch plays against Louisville than anyone since 1980s Memphis guard Elliott Perry. Even when Diener hasn't been the leading scorer against the Cards, he's been the leading agitator and demoralizer.
Diener has defeated Pitino's trademark pressure defense single-handedly at times, talked smack to the Cardinals without apology, worked the officials tirelessly and vexed the Freedom Hall crowd to no end. That's why Pitino's NBA comparison for Diener last year was to Danny Ainge. You love the little provocateur if he's on your side and want to throttle him if he's not.
Which presents a Catch-22 for Louisville fans Wednesday night: Diener is questionable with a recurring ankle sprain. It would undoubtedly be easier to beat Marquette with Diener out -- but would it be as satisfying?
Diener did not practice Tuesday in Milwaukee. Neither did Novak, who has the flu. Crean said the earliest he'll know whether he has either player will be the Golden Eagles' walk-through Wednesday morning. It might be a game-time decision.
Louisville, having been scorched by both in the past, will prepare for them to be 100 percent.
In truth, no team will extend less pity to the walking wounded than the Cards, who have endured a horrible 12-month run of injuries. Last season went to hell when linchpins Taquan Dean and Francisco Garcia were injured, and with Myles sitting out all year after rupturing a patellar tendon in his knee in 2003 against (of course) Marquette. This season Myles, Dean, excellent freshman big man Juan Diego Palacios and energetic sixth man Otis George have missed key time with injuries, and touted freshman center Brian Johnson is redshirting after preseason knee surgery.
Now, the only significant health issue for the Cards is Myles' broken left thumb. After everything they've been through, that's little more than a hang nail. Not coincidentally, Louisville has won five straight.
"Right now is the healthiest we've been," Pitino said. "We're a good basketball team when we're healthy."
When the opponent is Marquette, good might not be good enough. Louisville might have to tap into some greatness to beat its nemesis.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com
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