Not all players and coaches love the game. They just don’t. For some, the game is a vehicle, a job, a route to a second Range Rover or first degree.
Richard Pitino’s love of basketball, from the design of a pick-and-roll to the architecture of the best Big Ten arenas, leaps from him like a cartoon thought bubble.
Pitino’s love of the game has enabled him to appreciate the Big Ten even as he has comprehended its difficulty. After Wisconsin visits Williams Arena on Wednesday night, Pitino, at 31, will have faced five of the top 21 ranked teams in the country in his first seven Big Ten games. He will have dueled with Tom Izzo, Bo Ryan, John Beilein, Thad Matta, Fran McCaffery and Matt Painter.
In most conference games, Pitino will face a power coach. To his credit, Pitino seems honored by the challenge.
“How long has Bo Ryan been there?” Pitino asked Tuesday. “And he’s consistently been at the top. That’s something you have so much respect for. Tom Izzo, he’s never had a four-year player who hasn’t played in the Final Four. John Beilein has never been an assistant coach, so he’s been a head coach for 30 years and has been successful everywhere he’s been …
“I just think that these guys that have done it for so long at a high level is really what I’m impressed with. This is year two for me [as a head coach], and I think, goodness, 35 years from now … how do they do it? And they do it with unbelievable passion and an unbelievable love for the game and a love for coaching.”
As an assistant at Louisville and Florida, and a head coach at Florida International, Pitino accepted the Big Ten stereotype.
“My perception certainly was what everybody perceives: Grind-it-out basketball,” he said. “And I don’t think it’s really like that. Iowa is not that at all …
“When I was in the Big East we had 11 teams go to the tournament, but not every place had home courts like Iowa had, like Nebraska had last night against Ohio State, or like we have. These are the best home courts in all of college basketball. I think with the Big Ten Network, every game we have is on Big Ten Network or ESPN. So every game we have is a nationally televised game, so it’s heightened even more.
“Every game has two commentators and a sideline reporter, so it’s a show. Every single game. That’s what makes this conference so good. I didn’t realize that. You go to Nebraska, they’ve got a brand-new arena that’s sold out every game. Iowa is a phenomenal environment. I think Michigan State is the best I’ve ever seen. I think that’s really the key difference, over the other conferences I’ve been in.”
Wednesday night, Pitino will coach in his first Minnesota-Wisconsin game, after experiencing the full power of Williams Arena surround sound for the first time in his team’s victory over Ohio State.
“I thought Ohio State was as good as it gets [for atmosphere],” he said. “When I was at Louisville and Florida, it was different. Louisville was a big NBA-style arena. I think Wisconsin is like that a little with the Kohl Center. [Williams Arena] is such a historic arena, and each Big Ten team has a fight song that they sing.
“I thought the Ohio State game, not only did it look great on TV, which helps with recruiting and building your brand, but I thought that when this place is going, our guys really feed off of it and you see why they love playing here.”
Pitino might be the first Gophers basketball or football coach in a decade or two who praises the facilities and atmosphere. He said he loves Williams Arena “collegiate” atmosphere over newer venues with luxury suites.
Wednesday night, Pitino faces Bo Ryan, in The Barn, in a big game, for the first time. Pitino will find out just how loud The Barn can be.