Rick Pitino

Mentor vs. Mentee: Pitino and Donovan square off in the Elite Eight

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The West Region final is a sportswriter’s dream.

The story lines are endless: How did Louisville turn their season around? For that matter, how did Florida? Can Billy Donovan get back to the Final Four after winning back-to-back titles? Can Rick Pitino get back to his first Final Four since 2005 and just his second in the last 15 years? Is a Kentucky-Louisville national semifinal in the works? Kentucky-Florida wouldn’t be bad either.

But without a doubt, the story line that everyone is going to be writing about is the relationship between Pitino and Donovan. It isn’t a secret that Pitino has been Donovan’s mentor since Donovan played for Pitino at Providence. What isn’t as well-known is why they are so close.

Jeff Eisenberg, who got a jump on the competition with this story on Wednesday, explains:

When Providence plucked Pitino from the New York Knicks staff in 1985 to rebuild its floundering program, the Friars had finished last or next-to-last in the powerful Big East the previous six seasons. Longtime coach Joe Mullaney hadn’t managed to land Big East caliber recruits or inspire sufficient work ethic in his players during the twilight of his career.

Donovan’s own career had stagnated under Mullaney because he didn’t fit well into the coach’s half-court-oriented style. A creative passer and gifted scorer in an up-tempo system at St. Agnes Cathedral High on Long Island, Donovan grew frustrated when he couldn’t crack Mullaney’s rotation or even contribute much in practice, leading to his weight ballooning to nearly 200 pounds.

The combination of the lack of playing time and the lack of interest from coaches his family called seeking a transfer convinced Donovan he needed to work harder. As a result, Donovan eagerly accepted Pitino’s offer of a clean slate in return for him shedding his excess weight by the start of practice in the fall.

The result was a Final Four for the Friars in 1987, an achievement that skyrocketed Pitino’s value as a head coach. To return the favor, Pitino hired Donovan as a graduate assistant when he got the head coaching job at Kentucky, pushing for Marshall and then for Florida to hire “Billy the Kid”.

As they say, the rest is history.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

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Notre Dame’s Steve Vasturia sparks come-from-behind win over No. 13 Louisville

Notre Dame’s Steve Vasturia (32) goes up for a shot over Boston College’s Idy Diallo (4) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)
(AP Photo/Robert Franklin)
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Demetrius Jackson scored 20 of his 25 points in the first half and Steve Vasturia scored 15 of his 20 points in the final 20 minutes as Notre Dame landed a 71-66 win over No. 13 Louisville on Saturday afternoon.

The Fighting Irish trailed by as many as 11 points early in the second half, but Vasturia’s hot shooting combined with Notre Dame holding Louisville to just 15 points in the final 15 minutes made all the difference.

The Fighting Irish are not as good as they were last season, but they are built in a similar mold. Jackson, as we expected, as become one of the nation’s most dynamic point guards, impossible to slow-down in isolation and ball-screen actions. Steve Vasturia emerging as a legitimate secondary option offensively and Zach Auguste is one of the nation’s most underrated big men and one of the most dangerous as the roll-man in ball-screens.

Combine all of that with a handful of shooters creating space and Bonzie Colson’s emergence as a force on the offensive glass, and Mike Brey once again has one of the nation’s most lethal offensive attacks.

Where they struggle is on the defensive end of the floor, which is what makes the end of Saturday’s win so meaningful. The Irish entered the day ranked 232nd in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, which more or less means they’re as good as a bad mid-major program at keeping their opponents from scoring.

But they don’t have to be great to be able to win games.

They have to be good enough and they have to get important stops.

That’s precisely what happened on Saturday.

Whether or not that actually becomes a trend for this group will be something to monitor — it happened for Duke during last year’s NCAA tournament — but the bottom-line is this: Notre Dame does something better than just about anyone else in college basketball, and that’s score the ball.

On the nights they are able to gets some stops, they are going to be able to win some games. In the last eight days, they’ve proven that, beating North Carolina, Clemson on the road and Louisville.

And that makes them dangerous in March.