Before HBO’s epic Game of Thrones returns full force with its third season, college hoops will stage its own game for the throne between two fiery kings of campuses on Sunday. In their four decades of coaching, Coach K and Rick Pitino have been in battles so intense, HBO would have to censor the carnage. But none compare to the original.
Duke scarred Louisville's previously unblemished record in the first meeting between King K and Don Pitino in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament's championship game last November. However, their bloodiest clash came 21 years ago at the East Regional Final in Philadelphia. The backdrop for Sunday’s knockdown, drag ‘em out brawl for a trip to the Final Four in Atlanta will be “The Shot.” March 28, 1992 was the day Christian Laettner squashed one of the great stories in college hoops history and sent Pitino’s blue-collar, no-name “Unforgettables” packing in heartbreaking fashion. The Ghosts of Laettner, Grant Hill and Hurley are long gone; but Sean Woods, the passionate head coach of Morehead State that made the basket that put Kentucky ahead, is clearly still mad as hell about that loss.
At that current rate of time between rematches, this could be the final meeting between Pitino, 60, and 66-year-old Krzyzewski. Since ‘92, Coack K has transformed Duke into the foremost powerhouse in college hoops and is recognized as the most respected dignitary in basketball, pro or professional. Coach K has done this despite turning down multiple propositions from the Lakers and a litany of savvy general managers.
He’s dipped his toe into the NBA pool as head coach of Team USA, but he never got knee deep into the pro game. Conversely, Pitino’s collegiate career was interrupted by stints with the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics. In what is likely his final coaching stop, Pitino is now sleeping with the enemy at Louisville. Unfortunately, an extortion attempt by his mistress disfigured Pitino's reputation, ending any shot of him succeeding Coach K as Captain America, while the NCAA prevented him from walkin’ through Puerto Rico’s door as its Olympics hoops savior.
A win against Duke would propel Pitino to his third Final Four on the Louisville bench and give him a modicum of closure for '92. A win for Duke would place Coach K in a tie with the Wizard of Westwood for most Final Four appearances by a head coach. However, both coaches still maintain a mutual respect for one another.
"We were in a moment in '92 and he recognized that even though he was on the losing side. It was incredible," Krzyzewski told reporters before their November matchup. "It's really one of the more incredible things I've seen an opposing coach do. One of the things that I really respect about Rick is we both understand that the game is bigger than us. Sometimes the basketball gods you realize they put you in moments as long as it's not your moment, it's the game's moment, they might put you in another one."
The wait was a lot shorter this time. We told you there’d be blood in the midwest region. Put your dukes up and bring your Louisville Sluggers, because the knockout moment has arrived.