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March 13, 2014

Pitino is king of conference tourneys

Conference tournaments may not be important to some coaches, but they are to Louisville's Rick Pitino. And his record in those events shows it, which is one of the reasons the No. 5 Cardinals (26-5) are considered the favorite in this week's American Athletic Conference Tournament in Memphis despite two regular season losses to the host team.

With a record of 45-13, Pitino's career winning percentage in conference tournaments is 78 percent, which is even better than his overall winning percentage of 74. In an unprecedented achievement, he has won 11 conference championships in four leagues -- the ECAC (1, Boston University) , SEC (5, Kentucky) , C-USA (2, UofL) and the Big East (3, UofL). Ten of his defeats have been by single digits, including eight by six points or less.

Having won the Big East Championship the past two years, UofL is seeking its third straight title this week and Pitino has a chance to add the AAC crown to his Hall of Fame resume.

"It seems like Coach Pitino has a way of getting his teams to peak at just the right time," senior guard Tim Henderson says. "He works on different things all season, then puts it all together and we start playing our best basketball. That's what we're doing now."

Conference tournaments matter to Pitino because, with three games in three days -- against mostly strong competition -- he considers it a good warmup for the NCAA Tournament. And, indeed, Pitino's success in league tourneys seems to be a good barometer for how his team will fare in the NCAAs. Of the 11 squads that have won conference titles, eight have advanced to at least the Sweet Sixteen.

"Some coaches don't put great relevancy into (conference touranments)," Pitino says. "For me, it's always been extremely relevant because I think it is a dress rehearsal to get ready for the (NCAA) tournament in terms of a Thursday-Saturday or Friday-Sunday game with preparation back-to-back.

"I think it also builds confidence. I think it's really, really important. I've always felt it was really important to play well in the conference tournament. There's only one time when I didn't feel that way. One year at Kentucky I didn't think it would be bad to take a loss."

Pitino was referring to 1996, the only time he took UK to the SEC Tournament without winning the trophy. With a 28-1 record and a 27-game winning streak, the Wildcats were already assured of a No. 1 seed and he kept Antoine Walker on the bench as they suffered an 84-73 loss. UK then went on to win the national championship.

Going into the AAC Tournament, the Cards are ticketed for a three or four seed in the NCAAs, but Pitino thinks they will be a No. 2 seed if they win the title. So the Cards, which will probably have to beat two Top 25 teams to earn the crown, have plenty of motivation.

"We started as a top 10 team and ended as a top 10," Pitino says. "The thing that's been impressive is we don't have a bad loss. Our strength of schedule (92nd) hasn't been overly dynamic, but we're playing very good basketball at the end. And I feel very comfortable. I don't exaggerate our worth. If we win this tournament, we'll be a two seed. If we don't, we'll be a three or four seed."

Pitino's last trip to Memphis for a conference tournament was a memorable one, under similar circumstances -- an exit from a league. In 2005, playing in the Conference USA Tournament for the last time, UofL edged the Tigers when freshman guard Darius Washington Jr. missed two of three free throws with all zeroes showing on the clock. Standing at the line with his team trailing by two points, Washington hit the first free throw, then missed the next two. UofL 75, Memphis 74.

The Tigers were coached by none other than John Calipari. That Louisville team went on to make a surprising run in the NCAA Tournament, reaching the Final Four before losing to top-ranked Illinois 72-57 in the semifinals.

Pitino is hoping for less drama, but the same result this time and the odds are in the Cardinals' favor as they play in their first and only AAC event before departing for the Atlantic Coast Conference.

They are in the weakest bracket, opposite from Cincinnati, Memphis and Connecticut. Their quarterfinal opponent Thursday afternoon at 3 o'clock in the FedExForum will be Rutgers (12-20, 3-13). The Cards beat Rutgers by a whopping 48 points the last time they met.

Vegas has tabbed UofL as a 2/3 favorite, with Cincinnati next at 13/4, followed by Memphis (5/1), SMU (6/1) and UConn (10/1). Reflecting the weakness of the bottom five, the rest of the teams are all 100/1 or higher.


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