LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Asked what he might try to confuse a Minnesota team coached by the son who knows him well, Rick Pitino worked hard to keep a straight face.
“We’ve never played a triangle-and-two (defense), he will not be ready for it,” the Hall of Fame coach at Louisville said as Richard Pitino smiled while sitting beside him. “Their backcourt is something that must be stopped and it’s something that I’m going to try for the first time in my coaching career.”
Whether the elder Pitino, 62, follows through on that plan remains to be seen, and for what it’s worth, Richard Pitino isn’t buying it. But it wouldn’t be shocking if a new wrinkle emerges from Friday night’s season opener between No. 8 Louisville and Minnesota in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico.
The Armed Forces Classic will be the second meeting between the Pitinos, who met in 2012 during Richard’s lone season as Florida International’s coach. Louisville won 79-55.
Both Pitinos are eager to start with a quality victory, but it’s not that simple given their competitive DNA, similar mannerisms and basketball philosophies. After all, Richard, 32, learned much about fast-paced, full-court pressure defense under dad in two stints as a Louisville assistant sandwiched around a stop under Florida coach Billy Donovan, another Rick Pitino product.
That strategy was on display in last spring’s NIT championship game in New York as the Golden Gophers edged SMU and Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown 65-63. Watching nervously behind the Minnesota bench was Rick Pitino, whose body language was more like the coach he is rather than an anxious father.
“It was funny because for me, it was nice that he was there supporting me as well as the rest of my family,” Richard said. “But it kind of brought me back to all the games where we sat behind the bench and lived and died with every possession. It was good for him to go through that every now and then to see what we deal with all the time.”
The opener on Friday could prove anxious for Pitino family members no matter which bench they sit behind.
Louisville returns five regulars from a 31-6 team that reached last spring’s NCAA Midwest Region semifinal before losing to eventual runner-up Kentucky. Preseason All-American forward Montrezl Harrell (13.8 points, 8.2 rebounds per game) leads a Cardinals team that also features quick, aggressive guards Chris Jones and Terry Rozier and 6-foot-10 center Mangok Mathiang.
Minnesota has aspirations of competing in the Big Ten Conference and following up its NIT title with an NCAA tournament appearance. The seasoned Gophers boast a strong backcourt with seniors Andre Hollins (13.6 points) and DeAndre Mathieu (12.0), while 6-11 Elliott Eliason (6.6 rebounds) anchors the middle.
Nothing against the father vs. son showdown, but the Gophers believe the game is more about taking a step forward.
“It’s just a great opportunity for exposure and it can really benefit our program,” Minnesota forward Joey King said.
Louisville might have the talent advantage over Minnesota but with both teams so familiar with each other — they will even make the round trip on the same chartered plane — the Pitinos agree that the outcome depends on which team executes better.
“We both know we have good teams,” Rick Pitino said. “We’re both preparing for somewhere down the road. It’ll make us both better, we know each other inside out and outside in.”
All things between the coaches seem equal to Gophers players who have seen their share of Rick Pitino since his son became coach. King acknowledged the obvious in saying both are “really confident” and Eliason joked that they have “great hairstyles, also.”
Both coaches also have recent championships to brag about, though Rick’s 2013 NCAA title no doubt trumps Richard’s NIT crown in family discussions. That achievement remains a source of pride for the father, though it hasn’t stopped them from taking digs at each other since the matchup was announced last season.
Trash talk was conspicuously absent during this week’s news conference, as father and son focused more on the challenge that lies ahead for both schools rather than one-liners. Those might come afterward.
Besides, Richard Pitino said, “we’ve done it for five months now, so we’ve run out of material.”
AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell in Minneapolis contributed to this report.