For the first time since their teams played perhaps the greatest game in the history of the NCAA Tournament, Krzyzewski and Pitino meet in the regional finals of the NCAA Tournament today when top-seeded Louisville faces Duke for a trip to the Final Four.
Never mind that few of their current players were
even born in 1992. Or that Pitino is no longer at Kentucky, having switched sides in the state’s civil war.
Krzyzewski and Pitino are forever linked by that one game in Philadelphia, immortalized by Christian Laettner’s improbable shot.
“It’s one of those moments in time that helped define our sport,” Krzyzewski said. “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.”
Krzyzewski and Pitino are two of the finest coaches of their generation, with five NCAA titles and 1,618 victories between them. Yet for all of their success, and for as good a friends as they are, Krzyzewski and Pitino rarely play each other.
When Louisville (32-5) and Duke (30-5) played in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament in November – Duke won – it was the first time Krzyzewski and Pitino had played each other since ’92. Today’s game will be their third meeting ever.
“That’s why we got them in the conference. Got to start doing this a little bit more,” Krzyzewski joked, referring to Louisville’s upcoming move to the ACC.
But almost nothing could top that first meeting between them.
As anyone who’s ever watched the NCAA Tournament in the past 21 years knows, Duke’s Grant Hill threw a pass from the far baseline and found Laettner at the foul line with his back to the basket. Laettner faked right, spun to his left and his 15-footer hit nothing but net as the buzzer sounded.
“I don’t think you can realize the significance at that time,” Krzyzewski said. “I will always remember the stark difference in emotion. Because, right in front of me, Richie Farmer collapsed. I see our guys jump and I see him fall. And really, I was more taken by Richie. I understood by looking at him … just how tough that was.”
It was agonizing for the first 24 hours, Pitino said. But when he popped a tape of the game in the next day, he saw it in a different light.
“I just sat back and said, ‘Darn, that was some hell of a basketball game,’” he said. “I got the guys together and I said, ‘Man, that was a great game.’ Really was a great game, especially playing without Mash.”
Duke would go on to win its second consecutive title, beating Michigan in the final. Kentucky would complete its revival four years later when the Wildcats beat Syracuse for their sixth NCAA title and first since 1978.
But it is that game that everyone remembers, and the years have done nothing to diminish it.
Clips of the play are on repeat throughout the tournament each year. And as the NCAA celebrates 75 years of March Madness this year, the Laettner play has been among the highlights.
“I do think about it often,” Pitino said. “Not from a revenge standpoint, but as a great game that I was happy to be part of.
“To me, it’s one of the best losses I’ve ever had,” he said. “A bad loss is where your guys play terrible, you don’t play. It was a great loss because my guys played almost a perfect game and we 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.”