Nobody forgets a Final Four team. That's one reason coaches who have been to an NCAA regional final say it can be the toughest game there is: You have only one day to prepare, the pressure and attention are intense, and winning means the difference between legend and afterthought. Few people appreciate the stakes better than Louisville coach Rick Pitino and his protégé Billy Donovan, now in his 16th season in charge of Florida. Twenty-five years ago, when No. 6 seed Providence beat No. 1 Georgetown in Louisville to become one of the most unlikely national semifinalists in history, Pitino was the Friars' ambitious young coach and Donovan the former overweight bench warmer he had driven to become his star point guard. Five years later the two were together on the Kentucky sideline at the East Regional final in Philadelphia—Donovan as Pitino's young assistant—to witness the most thrilling game in tournament history. That one ended, torturously for Wildcats fans, when Duke forward Christian Laettner hit the overtime buzzer beater that sent Kentucky home and the Blue Devils to their fifth straight Final Four and second straight national title.
Last Saturday in Phoenix the two old friends were reunited on the regional final stage, this time as opposing coaches. Their history of mutual support and admiration—each says the other made him who he is professionally—had produced a tapestry of connections: On the 46-year-old Donovan's bench sat assistant John Pelphrey, who was a senior on that 1992 Kentucky team. On the 59-year-old Pitino's sat one of Donovan's former assistants, Pitino's 29-year-old son, Richard, who helped recruit several of the top Gators, including freshman guard Bradley Beal and sophomore big man Patric Young. Somewhere Donovan has a picture, taken when he was at Providence, of four-year-old Richard sitting on his lap.
Both Pitino and Donovan had won NCAA titles with highly regarded teams since that Providence run (Pitino with Kentucky in 1996; Donovan with Florida in 2006 and '07). But on Saturday they were both leading the kind of underdog squad that had kick-started both of their careers.
When it was over, after No. 4--seeded Louisville had outscrapped seventh-seeded Florida and overcome an 11-point deficit to pull out a pulsating 72--68 win, Pitino, who cried when Donovan won his first title, felt conflicting emotions. "It hurts to see Billy lose," he said. Yet, he added, referring to his patched-together Cardinals, who were celebrating in the locker room as he spoke, "I never wanted a Final Four more than for these guys. They give me every single thing they have in their bodies. They are just the most incredible team to coach."
The 2012 Final Four includes three teams—Ohio State, Kentucky and Kansas—that no one should be surprised to see in New Orleans. Louisville, on the other hand, hasn't cracked the top 10 since December, went 2--4 to end the regular season, didn't have an all--Big East player (first, second or third team) and has suffered so many concussions along with a raft of other injuries that three players have to practice wearing MMA-style helmets. Without a go-to scorer, the Cardinals have relied heavily on their pressure defense to win eight straight, starting with their opener in the conference tournament.
In a 57--44 Sweet 16 victory, Louisville's aggressive matchup zone held top-seeded Michigan State to 28.6% shooting and 44 total points, both alltime tournament lows for the Spartans. After the Gators made 14 of 21 shots on Saturday, including eight threes, in the first half—"Everybody has struggled with our defense this year," Pitino said, "except them"—the Cards switched to man and stopped the barrage, but the fouls began to pile up. Down 58--47 with 10:56 to play, senior swingman Kyle Kuric grabbed his teammates and said, "Let's just get some stops. We're facing adversity, [but] we've been here before."
With a combined 17 points from sophomore sixth man Russ Smith and freshman forward Chane Behanan in a seven-minute stretch, Louisville whittled the lead to 65--64 when point guard Peyton Siva fouled out with 3:58 to go, leaving Smith—a player so erratic that Pitino calls him Russ-diculous—to run the attack. "I have never been so nervous in my life," said Smith. But after a potentially disastrous turnover, Smith made two clutch free throws in the final seconds that gave him a game-high 19 points and all but sealed the win.
The 6-foot sophomore from Brooklyn, who averages 11.6 points and 21.3 minutes, hadn't seen this big game coming—"No idea," he said—and neither had Pitino. "That's what's fascinating about this group," says Pitino. "I never know who is going to be great on any given night."
Against Michigan State, 6'11" sophomore Gorgui Dieng (pronounced GOR-gee Jeng) was the Cardinals' catalyst. He tied a career-high with seven blocks, but more important he committed just three personals. "Gorgui has been in foul trouble because he leaves his feet," said Pitino. "He was on the bench probably 15 games this year with two fouls in the first half. The fact that he never went for fakes is amazing considering where we were at the beginning of the year. If he leaves the game we become small and we're not as good defensively. If he stays in the game, we can win the national championship."
Dieng's path to becoming the most important cog on this year's unlikeliest Final Four team began in Kebemer, Senegal. He is the seventh of eight children of Seynabou and Momar, a teacher turned legislator who was far more interested in education than basketball, the game Dieng started playing casually as a five-year-old. "If you talk to my dad about basketball, he gets annoyed," says Dieng. "All he cares about is how I do in school."