Pitino’s Cardinals had a new trick for every defensive possession, putting his team into position to get key stops and turnovers despite being clearly outmatched. The Cardinals switched between man-to-man and zone defenses in the halfcourt and showed an array of different full-court presses. On one possession, after a foul shot, Pitino’s guards denied the inbounds pass, forcing a Kentucky timeout. On another possession, they trapped in the halfcourt, surprising Kentucky into a quick shot. Over the course of the game, Pitino used his scrappy perimeter defenders, Peyton Siva, Russ Smith and Chris Smith, to spearhead pressure and force Kentucky into mistakes. It was a masterful, if ultimately doomed, effort that required both precision and coordination.
Calipari’s approach was the opposite. Aside from token pressure after timeouts, his Wildcats stayed in the same man-to-man defense the entire game. The Wildcats’ offense consisted mostly of keeping good spacing and going one-on-one or setting ball screens; the type of offense a team might run in a pickup game, not the Final Four. He did not manufacture stops or attempt to play chess with Rick Pitino. Calipari recruited the best players on the court and let them play.
It would be simple to say that Pitino outcoached Calipari, but it wouldn’t quite be correct. Calipari has the luxury of letting college basketball’s best players take over the game; a luxury of which he took full advantage late in the game against Louisville. With a team of freshmen and sophomores, Calipari doesn’t attempt complicated game plans. He doesn’t need to. He keeps his Xs and Os simple, makes sure his guys play unselfishly and gives them the opportunity to show their overwhelming talent. Against Louisville, that was enough to win.