By MICHAEL MAROT
The Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS — Rick Pitino encouraged John Beilein not to waste much practice time Saturday trying to solve Louisville’s pressure defense.
The Michigan coach knows better.
After 39 seasons on college sidelines as a head coach and four head-to-head matchups with Pitino, Beilien understands his team must be ready for anything and everything in today’s second-round game at Indianapolis.
“He’s the hardest coach that I’ve ever had to prepare for,” Beilein said. “Usually, it’s one or two-day prep and it’s really hard. Styles may be different and just getting your kids to understand certain concepts, but he’s done pretty well prepping for us. He’s got a pretty good record in these preps.”
The numbers prove it.
Pitino is 16-4 at this point of the NCAA Tournament, is one win away from taking the Cardinals (25-8) to their sixth Sweet 16 in seven seasons and needs three more wins to reach his eighth Final Four.
Against Beilein, he’s 3-1 including a 72-66 victory in the 2013 national championship game and an improbable 93-85 overtime win in the 2005 regional final.
Louisville rallied a 20-point first half deficit to force the overtime against Beilein when he was still with West Virginia.
On paper, this matchup looks like it could be more of the same.
Second-seeded Louisville is a 2¢-point favorite today and the Cardinals (25-8) have won national championships each of the previous two times they were a No. 2 seed (1980 and 1986).
But Michigan (25-11) has done nothing by the book lately.
With their tourney hopes teetering on the edge two weeks ago, Michigan turned the corner — winning its regular-season finale, four games in four days to earn the Big Ten’s automatic bid and outscored Oklahoma State 92-91 in Friday’s first-round game
In the Midwest Region. The last five came after a harrowing plane mishap before they arrived in Washington for the conference tournament.
Pitino has seen a lot in 32 seasons as a college head coach and recognizes this may not be just another postseason surge.
“They have all the ingredients that add up to great runs. They shoot well from the foul line. They shoot well from the field. They’re a much improved defensive team as the season’s gone on,” Pitino said. “They’re extremely well coached at the fundamentals of the game, and then they have as tough a point guard as there is in the college game from a mental standpoint.”
One problem for Louisville — Michigan tends to avoid mistakes.
After matching a season-low with four turnovers against Oklahoma State, Michigan’s average dropped to 9.2 per game — the best in the nation and perhaps a major reason Pitino promised he wouldn’t turn up the pressure today.
Another potential concern — 3-point shooting. Michigan was 11 of 15 on 3s in the second half Friday and finished with 16, the most by a Wolverines’ team in NCAA Tourney history.
“They shoot the ball really well, all five positions,” forward Anas Mahmoud said. “We have to make them do something else other than shoot the 3.”
Pitino didn’t drop any hints about what he’d do defensively.
But Beilein understands Pitino will pull out something he hasn’t seen. What exactly it will be, he isn’t quite sure.
“They’re going to come out, they’re going to play full-court pressure,” he said. “Sometimes they’re going to trap, sometimes they’re going to run and jump. They’re going to play hard pressure, sometimes soft pressure. You’re going to see some type of full court, just soft stuff. You’re going to see regular man-to-man, switching man-to-man. We’ve seen all of those things. In a one-day prep, it’s hard.”
˜∫ JACKSON’S TIES: Kansas freshman Josh Jackson might have spent a year at prep school in California, but the 6-foot-8 standout is from Michigan and almost wound up picking Michigan State out of high school.
Now Jackson will have his chance to play against the team he grew up cheering for when the top-seeded Jayhawks (29-4) face the ninth-seeded Spartans (20-14) today.
“I grew up a State fan, but I believed I had a better chance of winning a national championship at Kansas,” said Jackson. “I love to win, so I am going to go out there and do my best to win.”
Jackson is friends with several Michigan State players including freshman Miles Bridges.
“This is probably going to be one of the toughest games that we’ve played against each other,” Bridges said.
∫ BLOCK PARTY: The game between Oregon and Rhode Island could be one big block party. Oregon is second nationally with 6.5 blocks per game and Rhode Island enters today’s game fourth with 6.0. The Ducks had just two in their opening win against Iona, their first game without shot-blocking leader Chris Boucher (ACL), but still have plenty of length up front to swat shots. Hassan Martin leads the Rams with 73 blocked shots.