In his 40-plus years of coaching, John Beilein has proven to have two Achilles heels in the coaching world.
Just last week, the Michigan coach triumphed over one of those foes to win a championship, beating the team in the Big Ten that bothers him the most — Wisconsin — for just the fourth time in 20 attempts.
Now, a week later, Beilein will have the chance to do the same over the one colleague who has had his number while playing on the big stage more than anyone else in coaching: Rick Pitino.
Beilein’s 1-4 record against Pitino doesn’t paint the full picture of how close this series has been, especially the games played between the two in March. Beilein and Pitino have coached opposite each other in either the NCAA Tournament or a conference tournament three times. Two of those games went to overtime, while just six points decided the other.
But they all resulted in Pitino wins.
“They are really hard for us,” Beilein said on playing Pitino-led Louisville teams. “He's the hardest coach that I've ever had to prepare for.
“Styles may be different and just getting your kids to understand certain concepts, but he's done pretty well prepping for us. He's got a pretty good record in these preps.”
Back in 2005, Beilein had to put together the first of those preps in similar circumstances. The then-West Virginia coach had less than 48 hours to plan, practice and ready his team to take on a scrappy yet shorthanded — the Cardinals' rotation was reduced to just six men due to injuries — Louisville team with a berth in that years’ Final Four on the line. Beilein had a gritty bunch as well, but his team was built around the concept that anyone on the court was capable of shooting the ball from deep.
Beilein’s Mountaineers jumped on the Cardinals from the tip, making 11 of its first 16 field goals, hitting 10 3-pointers in the first half, and holding Louisville to 27 points at the intermission.
West Virginia had a 13-point lead at the break, and was on a trajectory to expand it in the second half if the Mountaineers’ offense could continue to be potent from deep. Pitino’s 2-3-zone defense was ripped to shreds, and he only had one viable option to come off the bench and help. Pitino knew he needed to adapt his defense or watch the rain of West Virginia threes in the first half turn into a downpour for the last 20 minutes.
“I’ll never forget that game,” Pitino said. “I went in at halftime, we had to walk up the ramp at The Pit, and we moved all the chairs (in the locker room). And I said, ‘Guys, you're not going to believe this, we can’t play them zone. We’re going to get killed.’”
“We moved all the chairs and went through the Princeton offense of back doors, running the guy into our chest. And we went out with one or two minutes on the clock, and we had a walk-through in the locker room. We played man-to-man for the first time that year, and we were lucky to win it in overtime.”
The Mountaineers ended up shooting 55 percent from the field while making 18 three-pointers in the game, but still ended up getting outcoached and outhustled by the Cardinals in the second half and overtime.
“I think about that game a lot,” Beilein said. “We got up by too much, too early, and we played so well. They had way too much time to come back from that. Our kids played their hearts out. That was a great team that was a No. 8 seed as well that was fighting to get into the tournament and got super hot.”
West Virginia and Louisville would be set to rematch that game for years to follow when the Cardinals moved to the Big East for the 2005-06 season. In his first season coaching in the Big East, Pitino would suffer his lone loss to Beilein, a 68-64 affair in Morgantown.
But Pitino would get his revenge when Beilein was at his most desperate the following year. Louisville and West Virginia were matched up in the 2007 Big East Tournament’s quarterfinals. Beilein’s Mountaineers were squarely on the bubble to make that years’ NCAA Tournament, and could have virtually locked down a spot with a win over the then-16th ranked Cardinals.
In a grueling back-and-forth contest, Pitino ended up getting the best of Beilein again, this time in double-overtime. West Virginia ended up missing the NCAA Tournament as a result of the loss, and Beilein would receive an offer to leave Morgantown for Ann Arbor following the Mountaineers’ NIT Championship that year.
While Beilein may have left Pitino and the Big East, the two coaches’ paths were meant to cross again with college basketball’s grandest prize on the line.
Since their last meeting in 2007, Beilein and Pitino had evolved and each put together their most signature teams before facing off to prove who was at the forefront of modern college coaching between the pair with a title up for grabs. Beilein entered with the nation’s most efficient offense, and Pitino with the same for defense.
In a game of moves and counter moves, Pitino had the last one, and the Cardinals outlasted Beilein’s best effort again.
“Even the games we won — the Elite Eight game went to overtime, there was another in the Big East Tournament, the National Championship was a six-point game — they’ve always been right there,” said former Louisville forward and current assistant coach David Padgett. “It always seems like it’s one of the best offensive teams against the best defensive teams.”
On the eve of the latest installment of Beilein vs. Pitino, the Michigan offense and Louisville defense look to be at the center of attention, again.
Both coaches have been passing the butter between each other, trying to express the mutual respect they have for each other, yet making sure their current groups of players understand how history has unfolded between the two.
“It takes good balance, good intelligence,” Pitino said on what he’s been telling his team in preparation for Sunday’s showdown. “You've got to stay up all night, and your players got to really be tuned in to film work more than practice in seeing how they get it and what they do.”
“This team is very difficult to go against. If you said to me right now out of all the teams in college basketball, who are the two most difficult teams to play against with one-day prep, it would be Michigan and West Virginia.”
Beilein will surely have his players up for the challenge in this one, not only to keep their season alive, but also to break through against an adversary and team that has caused their coach so much pain in the past in Pitino and Louisville.
And knowing that Pitino will be doing the same, Sunday promises to surely be one hell of a fight.