Rick Pitino and Steve Masiello, shown here during their coach-assistant relationship at Louisville, meet on separate sidelines for second time ever as reigning national champion Cardinals resume title defense against Masiello and MAAC champion Manhattan. (Photo courtesy of The Big Lead)
Both coaches can downplay it all they want, but the second meeting between Steve Masiello and Rick Pitino will take center stage as Masiello's Manhattan Jaspers make their return to the NCAA Tournament following a decade-long absence tonight against Pitino and reigning national champion Louisville (9:50 p.m., TNT) in Orlando.
"I expect him to know everything I'm going to do because he taught it to me," Masiello, whose six years as Pitino's top assistant with the Cardinals sandwiched two separate stints at Manhattan; where he was once the first deputy behind Bobby Gonzalez on each of the Jaspers' two most recent NCAA Tournament teams prior to this year before returning to Riverdale three years ago as the successor to Barry Rohrssen, said. "It's one of those things you've got to be ready for and prepared for because he's a terrific coach."
Preparation is no problem for either party in this matchup, as both Manhattan and Louisville are essentially mirror images of one another. Upon becoming head coach in 2011, Masiello; whose basketball career started during his youth as a New York Knicks ballboy when Pitino coached the NBA franchise in between stops at Providence and Kentucky, made no secret of his intentions to make the Jaspers into Louisville's "Mini-Me," so to speak, running the same offensive sets and suffocating defensive press that Pitino has honed to perfection over the years. However, as the protege in tonight's showdown informs us, such intimate knowledge can be a double-edged sword.
"It's one of those things where your style could be very tough for most teams," Masiello cautioned, "but this is one of the few teams that I don't know if our style can bother."
In addition to two dynamic scoring guards in Manhattan's George Beamon and Louisville superstar Russ Smith being pitted against each other, not to mention the physical matchup in the paint between burgeoning big men Montrezl Harrell and Rhamel Brown, Manhattan will be up against the odds in more ways than one tonight. Not only are the No. 13 seed Jaspers playing a criminally underseeded Cardinals team that ended up a No. 4 in the Midwest regional despite clearly being worthy of a No. 1 or 2 seed in the wake of their dominating run through the inaugural American Athletic Conference tournament, Masiello will be attempting to become just the third Pitino disciple to defeat his mentor, an illustrious credit to the Hall of Fame coach's evolution and legacy, as only Tubby Smith and Mick Cronin have managed to get the better of their coaching sensei.
"I think Stevie Mas is one of the best young coaches in our game," Pitino said prior to the start of the 2012-13 season, before the Cardinals opened their championship campaign with a 79-51 win over Manhattan that he famously joked would be the "basketball version of Watergate" due to the familiarity between the two. "He's very, very smart, and not just in terms of recruiting. He was bent on playing me (in) his first game, (in 2012) and now I know why. It's because I didn't have any film on him."
That has obviously changed over the past sixteen months, but the significance of the coach and team across the court from the Jaspers is not lost on their senior leader, who has still not stopped flashing his trademark ear-to-ear smile in the wake of last week's MAAC championship win.
"Just playing against Coach Pitino is an accomplishment," George Beamon proclaimed shortly after Manhattan was drawn as the Cardinals' first opponent in the field of 68. "He's a Hall of Fame coach, (and) I think that's the biggest part, not just because he (Masiello) worked for him. Just playing against a Hall of Fame coach, just being in the presence of that guy, is going to make you feel some type of way."
Hopefully for Manhattan, their feelings will remain positive even after the final buzzer.