How Jim Boeheim helped launch the careers of Rick Pitino and John Beilein

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ATLANTA — On Saturday afternoon, John Beilein’s Michigan Wolverines will take the floor against Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse Orange in one of the more intriguing and unexpected Final Four matchups in recent memory.

Syracuse lost seven of their last 12 regular season games. Michigan lost five of their last 10. Both programs were written off by just about everyone outside of the locker rooms at the Carrier Dome and Crisler Arena. And yet, here they are, preparing to play on Saturday night at the Georgia Dome, 80 minutes of basketball away from winning a national title.

The biggest irony of all is that Beilein, one of the most well-respected coaching minds in the country, may not be here if it wasn’t for his opponent on Saturday.

Beilein’s back story has been well-documented. A descendant of the family that Saving Private Ryan was based on and a member of a noted coaching family in Western New York, Beilein began his career as a high school coach before moving on up to the Community College ranks. That was in 1978, two years after Boeheim took over at Syracuse. Beilein spent four years at Erie CC before jumping to Nazareth for a season before landing what he believed to be a big break when he was offered a job by Division II LeMoyne.

And that’s where his career started to stagnate.

A couple different Division I jobs in the area opened up during that time. Beilein applied for and was passed over each time. Finally, when Canisius came open in 1992, Beilein he was hired, but it wasn’t without some help. A call from Boeheim certainly helped move things along.

“He assisted me a great deal in actually getting my first Division I job,” Beilein said on Wednesday.

At Canisius, Beilein had five successful seasons which led to being hired by Richmond and, eventually, West Virginia. Boeheim had a hand in that as well, convincing West Virginia’s athletic director to offer the job to Beilein even though that meant that he would have to count Beilein as a conference foe. It was Beilein’s postseason success with the Mountaineers — an Elite 8 run in 2005 and a trip to the Sweet 16 in 2006 — that played a major role in Michigan giving him the job in 2007.

And while it may have taken him six years, Beilein has turned the Wolverines into a national title contender.

But Beilein isn’t the only coach that Boeheim helped mentor.

Back in 1976, when Boeheim first got the Syracuse job, he needed to hire a coaching staff. As legend has it, Boeheim called Pitino down to the lobby of his hotel in New York City on Pitino’s wedding night, convincing him to take a job as an assistant immediately so that Pitino could get out on the road and land a recruit named Louis Orr.

But here’s where it gets interesting: Pitino was hired in large part due to his association with five-star basketball and the recruits that he would be able to bring in as a result. That wasn’t the only reason that Pitino was hired, however.

“[Boehiem] wanted to play more man-to-man defense,” Pitino said. “He was under Roy Danforth, who was strictly zone. Back then we played a lot of man-to-man. I was fortunate, I got to learn the zone.”

He sure was fortunate.

Pitino’s Louisville teams mix-up their defensive looks quite a bit. They press, they play man-to-man, they play 2-3 zone, sometimes they play all three on a single possession. But what he’s known for right now — the defense that has carried him to back-to-back Final Four — is that 2-3 zone.

The defense that he learned in his two seasons on the Syracuse bench.

Pitino and Beilein are both terrific basketball minds. They would have had success in this business with or without Boeheim’s help.

But it’s interesting to think that Boeheim could end up beating not one, but two of the young coaches that he mentored in their younger days.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

Keenan Evans closes strong (again) as Texas Tech advances past Purdue to Elite Eight

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BOSTON — Second Half Keenan struck again on Friday night.

Keenan Evans scored 12 of his 16 points and handed out three of his four assists in the final 10 minutes of the game as No. 3-seed Texas Tech held off No. 2-seed Purdue, 78-65. Zach Smith and Justin Gray paced Tech early, combining for 26 points that helped the Red Raiders build a lead that reached as high as nine before Evans went into takeover mode. Zhaire Smith added 13 points of his own, while the Red Raiders forced 17 Purdue turnovers.

And with that, Texas Tech will to advance past the Sweet 16 for the first time since … ever.

This is uncharted territory for for the Red Raider program that has never been to an Elite Eight and will be playing for their first-ever trip to the Final Four.

It’s fitting, really.

On a night where their three-leading scorers never really got going, the Red Raiders advanced on the stretch of two things: Their defense, and the fact that their defense allows them to remain in games without playing their best basketball.

If that doesn’t sum up Chris Beard’s program, I don’t know what does.

More on this game to come …

No. 2 Duke goes inside to defeat No. 11 Syracuse

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OMAHA, Neb. — Second-seeded Duke made just 5 of its 26 3-point attempts against No. 11 Syracuse on Friday in the two ACC programs’ Sweet 16 matchup.

So the Blue Devils just went inside.

Marvin Bagley III and Wendel Carter, Jr. both had big games to help the Blue Devils outlast the Orange, 69-65, to put themselves in the Elite Eight on Sunday against top-seeded Kansas.

While Duke couldn’t beat the zone that took Syracuse from the First Four to the second weekend with its outside shooting, its two big underclassmen provided plenty of production. Bagley had 22 points and eight rebounds while Carter added 14 points and 12 boards.

Tyus Battle had 19 points to lead the Orange.

Syracuse shot 53.8 percent from the floor in the second half while Duke shot 36.4 percent, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the Orange’s 16 turnovers or Duke’s 17 second-chance points.

Grayson Allen had 15 points and eight assists for Duke. The Blue Devils had 32 points in the paint.


VIDEO: Allen-to-Bagley oop beats the Syracuse zone

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Usually, you’ve got to shoot a team out of a zone.

Duke might be able to dunk Syracuse out of it.

Grayson Allen and Marvin Bagley connected for a beautiful alley-oop Friday in the second half of the Blue Devils’ Sweet 16 contest against the Orange.

That will work as a zone-buster.

VIDEO: Duke slaps the floor on defense…while playing zone

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Slapping the floor on defense has its advocates and its detractors.

Some applaud the old-school, hard-nosed nature of putting hand to floor. For others, its a bit corny.

What everyone agrees on is that you don’t drop a floor slap if you’re playing zone.

Unless you’re Duke, apparently.

Presumably, the whole point of slapping the floor is to psyche yourself and intimidate your opponent with aggressive man-to-man defense. Not sit-back-and-guard-this-spot-whether-there’s-a-guy-there-or-not defense.

C’mon, Duke. You’re making it too easy for your haters.


Late run sparks Villanova past West Virginia, into Elite Eight

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BOSTON — It is always just a matter of time before the avalanche comes.

And when it does, you better hope that lead you have is big enough to withstand what’s coming.

For No. 5-seed West Virginia, it was not. With 11 minutes left on Friday night in Boston’s TD Garden, the Mountaineers led 60-54 and had seemingly wrestled control of the game from the No. 1-seed in the East Region. Less than five minutes later, after the Wildcats hit four of their next five threes, Villanova had taken a 76-66 lead by going on a 22-6 run, and West Virginia was never able to recover.

Jalen Brunson led the way for the top-seeded Wildcats with 27 points and four assists while Omari Spellman finished with 18 points, eight boards and three blocks and Mikal Bridges chipped in with 16 points despite playing relatively poorly — by his standards — on Friday.

With a 90-78 win, Villanova advanced to the Elite Eight and a date with the winner of tonight’s game No. 2 Purdue-No. 3 Texas Tech.

That’s the way that it works with this Villanova team. Armed with the most potent, high-volume three-point shooting attack in college basketball — maybe in the history of college basketball — fans of their opponents are just waiting for the inevitable.

On Friday night, Villanova shot 13-for-24 from three, which is damned-impressive and exactly what we expect at the same time.

But what changed the game was that 22-6 run that eventually turned into a 29-11 surge.

And it all started with a free throw.

Brunson drew a foul on Lamont West — a common theme for the Wildcats in the second half — and got to the foul line with 10:58 left on the clock. After he missed the second free throw, Spellman knocked the rebound out of bounds off of Esa Ahmad. Brunson against drew a foul, this time earning an and-one. A missed jumper from Beetle Bolden led to two Eric Paschall free throws before Jalen Brunson someone managed to find Mikal Bridges for a three that gave the Wildcats the lead and led to what might have been the most important sequence of the game.

Spellman spiked a Bolden shot straight down into the floor and then corralled the loose ball. He found Phil Booth with an outlet, and after a missed layup, Spellman beat everyone else down the floor for a massive tip-dunk that set off the Villanova-favored crowd:

“We expect that of him,” Brunson said of Spellman. “He’s supposed to play at a high level every game.”

After that stretch, Villanova threw it into cruise control. That West Virginia defense that had bothered them so much for the first 30 minutes of the game seemed to be nothing more than a mild annoyance, a little brother batting at the ball as the Wildcats pulled away. First it was Donte Divincenzo — who was flat-out bad, the player that was most-victimized by West Virginia’s pressure — hitting a three to push the lead to six. Then after two West Virginia free throws, Brunson dribbled Jevon Carter into the post before kicking the ball out to Spellman for a three. Paschall would dunk on Sagaba Konate the next time the Wildcats had the ball before Brunson capped the run by drilling a step-back three in the face of Carter.

Once that happened, everyone knew the end result was inevitable.

“We got used to the physicality, we got used to the aggressiveness, and we were executing better,” head coach Jay Wright said. “We thought that was going to be the case. You just can’t simulate that, you know. You got to just get in that game and feel it.”

“I have so much respect for the way West Virginia plays, how physical, how relentless they play, how mentally tough they are. Really, you’ve got guys, they don’t talk any junk. A little with Konate and Omari got into it a little bit, no biggie, but the whole game, they don’t say anything. They just come at you physically, aggressively, and mentally tough. So if you’re not better in those areas, they’re going to get you. And to see our guys come out, more to be able to compete with them physically and mentally, it was really impressive to me.”

Me, too.