CHARLOTTE — Rick Pitino invented basketball.
Then he grew up.
The coach at Louisville sat in a packed room Wednesday, and he was not the center of attention. Welcome to the ACC.
Pitino will eventually demand attention from the other 14 schools in the leagues and their assorted lunatic fringe. He has that way about him. He likes to talk. And he’s not from around here.
The rest of the league will soon find out that he’s a lot like all the other hall of fame coaches around the league. Or rather, he’s a lot like they used to be.
Louisville is no Kentucky. The powerful Cardinals program isn’t a new-age basketball factory that collects AAU players who can only dunk and then tweet about it.
Pitino is old school. His teams will remind ACC fans of the way it used to be.
Want to compare Louisville’s program in terms we can understand? How about Dean Smith’s old Carolina teams? Think of the way Norm Sloan built his teams. Think back to Terry Holland and Lefty Driesell.
Louisville is built along classic lines, from the rim out, not the other way around.
There was a time when ACC schools stockpiled big men, building teams around interior defense then surrounding the bigs with athletes.
That’s how Pitino builds his basketball teams.
“Power forwards and centers are crucial,” he said. “The others — the 2, the 3 and the 1 — they’re interchangeable. It’s crucial in college basketball because very few teams have power forwards and centers.”
Pitino is like all other coaches in that he wants the best players. But unlike most, including some of the old guard in the ACC, Pitino still clings to the old roles and the old systems of coaches he learned from, coaches like Hubie Brown and the old Big East dinosaurs like Rollie Massimino and Lou Carnesecca.
And like those guys, he contends that league was better than this one.
“When you start getting double-figure teams into the NCAA, you’ll have the Big East, Southern style,” he said.
He can be excused for not knowing the history of the ACC, but he’ll soon get an education. Southern style.
The same can be said for the league, however. If the rest of the ACC doesn’t understand just what Louisville is all about, it’s in for a rude awakening.
Pitino believes in defense. He recruits players who can play basketball the way we remember it — not just firing up threes and running back to the other end of the floor. Yes, the Cardinals shoot threes with the best of them, but only in the context of the offense.
Pitino invented the concept of shooting long-range jumpers, building offenses around the shock attack, using the three to control tempo on one end of the floor then sprinting back to do what Louisville does best.
“We know we’re not going to win without playing defense,” he said. “But we’re averaging 82 points a game, so offense is important to us, too. You have to be able to shoot the ball in our system.”
He knows the numbers, and he knows how they add up. Pitino is a metrics guy, a stat guy who analyzes possessions and efficiency factors. He might be old school, but he’s aware of the changing game.
Pitino is 62. He’s been around. He coached Kentucky, and he coached the Celtics. He has two national titles and is already in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
This isn’t Pitt or Virginia Tech coming into the league. This is Louisville. This is basketball royalty, a coach and a program that carries more weight than all but a couple of ACC programs the minute it walks into the arena.
He’s never been to Cameron. He’s never been to Littlejohn, never coached in Raleigh or Charlottesville. This is a historic moment for a league that loves its own history. Pitino is an outsider who has more prestige than most of the insiders.
That might be a problem for some in the ACC.
But the truth is, he brings his own history. Pitino learned from different legends, but he soon began to succeed on a parallel path with the legends of the ACC.
His teams play basketball the way it’s supposed to be played, not with waves of recruits but with upperclassmen who come back for an extra season, with power forwards and centers playing around the rim, the way Smith and Sloan coached, the way the ACC played before the Big East even existed.
He can be forgiven for not knowing what came before him here, but he makes no excuses for his pedigree. Pitino’s not from around here. But we’ll recognize his teams. We’ll hear the loafer slaps on the hardwood and know what the sound means.
It’s basic stuff. Play defense. Rebound. Make shots. Win championships.
We’ve been watching that here for a long, long time. But he’s been doing the same thing while we weren’t watching.
He joked Wednesday that he’s been coaching the same way since he was 24 years old. He said he once thought he invented basketball before he matured and learned the game didn’t need to be re-invented.
Rick Pitino is in the ACC now.
Old school is cool again.