New York Colleges: Rick Pitino

W2W4: Manhattan vs. Louisville

March, 20, 2014
Mar 20
Here's what to watch for when No. 13 seed Manhattan (25-7, 15-5 MAAC) plays No. 4 seed Louisville (29-5, 15-3 AAC) on Thursday at the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla., in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Tip-off is at approximately 9:50 p.m. ET, and you can watch the game on TNT or right here at March Madness Live.

STUDENT VS. TEACHER: In his first NCAA tournament as a head coach, Steve Masiello has to go up against his mentor, Rick Pitino, who Masiello calls "a second father." (Click here to read more.)

Pitino ripped the selection committee Wednesday for pitting these two schools, and coaches, against one another. Masiello isn't happy about it either. (Click here to read more.)

Regardless, there's obviously a lot at stake here, so both coaches will do everything in their power to win. The Cardinals are the defending national champions. The Jaspers are in the tournament for the first time in a decade, since 2004.

CARBON COPY: Masiello spent six years as an assistant to Pitino at Louisville, and employs the same style of play. Both teams are high-scoring, and hope to create havoc with full-court pressure defense.

The problem for the Jaspers is, the Cardinals are just better at doing it. Manhattan is 38th in the country in scoring (77.4 ppg), but Louisville is eighth (82.1). Manhattan is 16th in the country in steals (8.3 spg), but Louisville is second (10.1).

One area in which Manhattan's actually better is getting to the foul line -- the Jaspers are fourth in the country in free-throw attempts, and ninth in makes. But they're 283rd (out of 345 Division I schools) in free-throw percentage (66.2). If Manhattan can get to the foul line as often as it usually does, and has an unusually good day shooting free throws, that could be the recipe for an upset.

X-FACTORS: Manhattan has three players who average in double figures -- all seniors -- but leading scorer George Beamon must deliver if the Jaspers are going to have a chance.

Beamon, a 6-foot-4 swingman, averages 19.2 points per game. He is the team's best free-throw shooter (82.7 percent), and can also hit the 3-point shot (37.1 percent). Beamon scored a season-high 34 points in a game against fellow NCAA tournament squad George Washington back in November.

Louisville has four players who average in double figures, but all eyes will be on senior guard Russ Smith -- a Brooklyn native, and likely first-team All-American.

Smith averages a team-high 18.3 points per game. He's been awfully consistent this season, scoring in double digits in 32 of 34 games -- and the two exceptions were blowout victories in which he took a combined six shots. But there's always the chance "Russdiculous" will have an off night.

Smith, Southerland leave proud NYC touch

March, 17, 2013
NEW YORK -- When the final horn sounded -- when the comeback was complete, when the championship was secured -- Russ Smith made a beeline for the TV camera, wagging his right index finger in front of his face.

New Yorkers like the spotlight, and Smith is no exception.

The spotlight couldn't have been brighter at Madison Square Garden this week, particularly Saturday night, as we all said goodbye to the Big East conference as we know it.

It was only fitting that two New York City kids were among the brightest stars on the stage.

Smith had scored a combined 48 points in Louisville’s quarterfinal and semifinal victories over Villanova and Notre Dame, respectively.

[+] EnlargeRuss Smith
Chris Chambers/Getty ImagesRuss Smith scored 10 points on 2-of-8 shooting but left with a second straight tourney title.
James Southerland had poured in 53 in the three wins that landed Syracuse in the championship game.

An undersized two-guard from Brooklyn and an oversized three-man from Queens, Smith and Southerland figured to play prominent roles in the tournament finale.

And they did.

Southerland struck first -- and made history in the process. The 6-foot-8 senior with the smooth stroke from the perimeter drained his first 3-point attempt of the game, less than three minutes in, giving Syracuse an early 6-0 lead.

It was Southerland’s 17th 3-ball of the week, breaking the record held by former Syracuse guard and current assistant coach Gerry McNamara, as well as former Connecticut guard Albert Mouring.

Southerland hit another one from deep before halftime, and his third triple of the game gave Syracuse its largest lead, 45-29, with 15:51 remaining. He appeared to be on his way to garnering tournament MVP honors.

Seventeen seconds later, he headed to the bench with his fourth foul, and everything changed.

Smith, on the other hand, was practically invisible in the first half. The 6-foot dynamo shot 0-for-4 from the field, collecting just two points from the foul line. But you figured he’d find a way to get involved in the second half.

It didn’t take long. He connected on his first attempt after intermission, from beyond the arc. And when Louisville scored 10 consecutive points following Southerland’s fourth foul, Smith was involved as well, canning another trey.

The Cardinals eventually surged to the lead, thanks to their smothering full-court pressure. The Orange wilted, at both handling the ball and shooting free throws. The game, shockingly, turned into a rout in Louisville’s favor.

Smith, who finished with 10 points, 3 assists and 3 rebounds, was emotional after the game. He has been playing all week in honor of former high school coach, the legendary Jack Curran, who passed away days earlier at age 82.

“It’s been just a roller-coaster ride. Especially since the loss of a guy like that, it’s had a tremendous effect on me,” Smith said. “But wining this tournament cured a lot of the sadness I had, and I’m playing in his name.”

Southerland, who finished with nine points and eight rebounds, lamented what might have been.

[+] EnlargeJames Southerland
Chris Chambers/Getty ImagesJames Southerland had 9 points and 8 rebounds but also 4 turnovers in Syracuse's defeat.
“I just feel like we kind of made it -- we didn't make some smart plays at the end,” Southerland said. “We didn't take advantage of our lead and move the ball around like we should have.”

Louisville coach Rick Pitino was thrilled for Smith, and the rest of his team.

“I’m really excited for them that they can be part of basketball history,” Pitino said. “I’m really happy that the basketball history took place at Madison Square Garden. And I’m really excited we could do it in (Big East founder) Dave Gavitt’s memory, and now Jack Curran’s for Russ Smith. It meant a lot for Russ to play well, and he certainly did.”

This was the 34th Big East tournament, and the 31st played at Madison Square Garden. There will be a Big East, and a Big East tournament, next season -- but we all know it’ll never be quite the same.

St. John’s, the city’s team, won the first Big East tourney played at the Garden, back in 1983. But the Red Storm haven’t played in the championship game since 2000, and were eliminated from this tournament on the first full day.

Someone had to step up to represent the five boroughs.

In the end, two did the job.

The 2013 Big East tournament will be remembered for the classic Syracuse-Georgetown semifinal, and the stunning Louisville comeback in the title game.

But this New Yorker, raised on Big East basketball, will also never forget James Southerland and Russ Smith.

They might not be superstars. Far greater players have played on this stage.

But they were the final act. And they did their hometown proud.

Louisville gets chance to leave final stamp

March, 16, 2013
NEW YORK -- This last run of the Big East tournament as we know it has been all about the old teams, the stalwarts from the league’s beginning either moving on or rebuilding the league in its own original image.

Except a funny thing has happened while everyone has been mourning the past and wondering about the future: A young'un from the Big East, a whippersnapper if you will, is taking its share of the last rays of the spotlight.

Louisville, born into the Big East in 2005 and set to expire in 2014, beat Notre Dame 69-57 on Friday night to advance to the Big East tournament final. The Cardinals, the relative newbies, will take on Big East original Syracuse in what, thanks to the twisted world of conference realignment, will be an ACC game in two years.

That makes four appearances in the final game in New York in the past five years for the Cardinals, a run that is rare for anyone in this brutal league and unprecedented among the current nouveau riche of the team roster.

[+] EnlargePeyton Siva
Debby Wong/USA TODAY SportsPeyton Siva had 7 steals and 6 assists to go along with his 12 points in Friday's win.
“I honestly don’t know why it is," coach Rick Pitino said. “I know we put a lot of emphasis on it. It means a lot to us, and at this time of the season we allow them to take some chances offensively, to not be conservative. I think that helps. But maybe it’s just because it means a lot."

It’s interesting that it’s Pitino who is orchestrating this new-kid-on-the-block run.

He is seen now as a pillar of the league, but back when, he was just a kid coach trying to prove his worth. This is where he did it, cutting his teeth at Providence. He was a young interloper -- so young that plenty of the coaches he was going up against tried to recruit him. They were the Mount Rushmore of the profession, he the unproven rookie.

Pitino held his own in meetings -- memorably going toe-to-toe with Rollie Massimino in one that still ranks in the story files -- and held his own on the court, too, taking the Friars to the Final Four in 1987.

So in a lot of ways, his team’s run here is a lot like his own. The Cardinals came into the Big East with plenty of name cachet thanks to the history carved by Denny Crum, but they were Southerners crashing the Yankee party, unknown entities who had to prove they could hang in a conference that prided itself on physical play.

And now here they are, playing in their eighth tournament, already trying to win their third title.

By any measure of history, those are pretty good numbers.

Asked what it’s like to "own the tournament," Peyton Siva smiled.

“I hope we own it tomorrow,’’ the Louisville guard said. “Coach really pushes us to bring our game up to a higher level. Throughout the year, we’re still trying to figure out our defenses and our offenses. We work so hard and condition so much that these three days are just like three days of practice. We’re used to it."

For Louisville on Saturday, this game will be about more than just sweet nostalgia. The Cardinals are in position to secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament -- with Duke’s loss to Maryland, they might already have locked one up -- but this entire week has been about memory lane and sentiment.

It’s no different for the Cards.

Louisville will be in The Conference To Be Named Later for one more season before jumping ship to the ACC. Its attachment to the Big East isn’t quite as deep as that of the others who are leaving, but the Cardinals nonetheless can leave an indelible mark on the league.

“This is the last Big East tournament game to be played," Pitino said. “Whoever wins, they’re going to be the answer to a trivia question for a long, long time."

New York City natives lead Louisville

March, 15, 2013
NEW YORK -- The Big Apple didn’t get to see its hometown team play in the Big East quarterfinals Thursday night.

Louisville versus Villanova was a pretty darn good consolation prize.

No, the game wasn’t a nailbiter. In fact, it was all but over midway through the second half. But a packed house at Madison Square Garden got to watch a national championship contender at the absolute peak of its powers.

Villanova, which took out St. John’s 24 hours earlier to earn a spot in the quarters and had beaten Louisville in late January, was no match for Rick Pitino’s club this night, falling 74-55.

[+] EnlargeLouisville's Russ Smith
Al Bello/Getty ImagesLouisville's Russ Smith scored 21 of his 28 points against Villanova after halftime.
“We lost last time around for three reasons,” Pitino said. “We missed free throws, didn’t guard the 3-point line, and didn’t cause enough havoc. Tonight we did all three.”

“Havoc” doesn’t nearly do it justice. Louisville led by only nine at the half, 30-21, but it felt like a lot more. That’s what happens when you watch a team commit 18 turnovers in just 20 minutes.

“I think we were just very intense,” Pitino said. “We were really quick. We’re fast.”

Villanova committed only seven more turnovers in the second half. But the Cardinals stepped it up at the other end. After shooting just 35.7 percent (10-for-28) before the break, the Cardinals made 54.2 percent (13-for-24) in the second half -- led by senior guard Russ Smith, who poured in 21 of his game-high 28 points after intermission.

“Their guards completely dominated the game,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “The game was allowed to be played very physical. It was very fair. We just did not respond to the physical play. That’s what happens -- you turn the ball over like that.”

Smith, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., dedicated his performance to his former high school coach at Archbishop Molloy, the legendary Jack Curran, whose death at the age of 82 was announced earlier in the day.

Smith admitted shedding tears when he heard the news. “It was almost heartbreaking to think about it,” Smith said. “I just wanted to win and do anything I could to win.”

Pitino, whose team was already second in the country in steals per game, loved the forced turnover total. But he loved another stat even more: 58 defensive deflections, according to Louisville’s calculations. That’s the most a Pitino-coached team has ever collected in a single game, even during his stints in the NBA.

“It was an incredible thing to witness,” Pitino said.

Last March, Louisville arrived in New York in a slump, losing four of six to end the regular season. But they ended up winning this tournament as the No. 7 seed, and going all the way to the Final Four.

This year, the Cardinals got a head-start. They’ve now won eight games in a row, a streak that began in mid-February.

Villanova had probably already done enough to sneak into the NCAA tournament field as an at-large. But Louisville is shooting for a No. 1 seed.

“This team could win a national championship,” Wright said, of Louisville.

So if New Yorkers are looking for a team to root for in the Big Dance next week -- besides Cinderellas Iona and LIU Brooklyn -- Louisville is a prime candidate.

After all, Pitino is a New York City native and one-time coach of the Knicks. And Smith, a first-team All-Big East performer, is certainly doing his hometown proud.

But as for the rest of the country? Beware.

The Cardinals are picking up some serious steam. You don't want to see them on your side of the bracket.

Brooklyn's Smith on Final Four stage

March, 29, 2012
Louisville guard Russ Smith Jr., a Brooklyn native, will play the biggest game of his career on Saturday night, a Final Four matchup with top-ranked Kentucky that has consumed the Bluegrass State.

Louisville is David to Kentucky's Goliath in this game in New Orleans, with a berth in the championship game at stake.

Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesRuss Smith Jr.

Smith, who starred at Archbishop Molloy in Queens, understands the enormity of the moment -- not that he's paying any attention to it.

"Pressure doesn't really bother me," he said. "I look at every game the same way."

If the Cardinals have any chance at chopping down Kentucky, they will need a strong contribution from Smith, a 6-0, 160-pound, score-first player that coach Rick Pitino nicknamed "Russ-diculous."

The nicknames have grown on campus, including the "Russeller," "Russell-mania" and, of course, "Russ-sanity."

The sophomore guard is averaging 13.3 points during the tournament and dropped 30 when Louisville lost 69-62 to Kentucky in late December. But it's Smith's propensity to freelance, take risks and maybe have a little too much fun that has made him both sensational and given Pitino headaches, causing the coach to say that Smith is "from a different planet."

When Louisville beat New Mexico to make the Sweet 16, you could see Smith making bunny ears behind Pitino's head during a postgame television interview. Reports have recounted one practice where Smith gave himself props for a pass during a scrimmage, screaming, "Great pass, Russ!"

Florida coach Billy Donovan called Smith's play "crazy" after he scored 19 points to lead Louisville to a comeback win and its first trip to the Final Four since 2005. Smith, known as a scorer, ran the offense for the final four minutes after starting point guard Peyton Siva fouled out. Smith relished that moment.

"It was definitely something that everyone kind of dreams of: starting guard is out or fouled out, there's four minutes left and you have to handle all the ball-handling duties. That's the perfect position," Smith said. "That's the position that you wouldn't give anything up for and I'm just really glad I got that opportunity."

Smith would call his father after games last season when, as a freshman, he was stuck to the bench, battling an array of injuries ranging from a broken right foot to two concussions.

He played in 17 games in his freshman season and averaged 5.6 minutes. Smith was used to playing most of game and carrying an offense his entire career.

Debby Wong/US PresswireSmith and Pitino used their Big East tournament title as a springboard into a Final Four run.

"It definitely sucked," Smith said. "I don't have a better word for it. It sucked."

Russ Smith Sr. said that his son, despite his reserved off-the-court demeanor, relishes opportunities to shine when the lights are the brightest. Like when he sunk two free throws with 17.8 left to give his team a 71-68 lead over Florida last week, just seconds after he nearly blew the game by getting caught up in the air and passing to the Gators' Bradley Beal.

That's who Russ Smith, Jr. is: high risk, high reward.

"It was very difficult to get upset at Russ for any length of time because every time he did something wrong, he came back at you with a big grin on him," said legendary coach Jack Curran, who let Russell-mania run wild at Molloy. Curran compared Smith to fellow Molloy alum Kenny Anderson because of his ability to beat defenders off the dribble. But Curran had seen few scorers like Smith, for better or worse.

It worked perfectly for Pitino, another New York product who Curran once coached at one of his basketball camps in Queens. Curran said the union between Pitino and Smith is perfect because Pitino was a feisty guard, too. But he is also a perfectionist, something that Smith, at least for now, is not.

"It's like being in a marriage," said Smith Sr. "There's ups and downs, and at the end of the day you're going to love each other. There's no disrespect whatsoever, only confusion."