Romar faces tough coaching matchup in Pitino

Posted: Thursday, March 24, 2005

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — To learn more about the coaching icon his team will face next, the only thing Washington guard Will Conroy had to do was turn on the TV.

''I was just watching a special about him in the room,'' Conroy said Wednesday.

The subject of the special: Louisville's Rick Pitino — he of the slicked-back hair, the movie-star looks, the 447 career victories, the four Final Four appearances and, yes, the one made-for-television documentary.

Little-known Lorenzo Romar is in charge of trying to outwit Pitino in the Albuquerque Regional semifinals Thursday. Romar has 151 wins, is making his third trip to the NCAA tournament and coaches a team that hasn't been to a Final Four in 52 years — not counting a movie a few years ago, ''The Sixth Man,'' in which the Huskies won it all.

It was fictional, of course.

''I think there's still a perception of, 'Isn't that cute, Washington is in the Sweet 16,''' Romar said. ''I think every game we've played, there has always been some doubt about us.''

For good reason, Romar doesn't want to make the semifinal — the winner will face Texas Tech or West Virginia — about himself and Pitino. And honestly, it figures that the most balanced matchups will take place on the floor, not the sideline.

Pitino has a .739 career winning percentage and has been this far in the tournament six times before — five with Kentucky, where he won the national title in 1996, and once before that with Providence.

Romar made it out of the first weekend for the first time this season. Casual fans may still recognize him more for his five seasons of journeyman's work with the Warriors, Bucks and Pistons than for what he's done in eight years as a college head coach.

''I've never felt like it was me against them,'' Romar said of the way he approaches coaching matchups. ''At the same time, when I was in the NBA, and I'm playing against Julius Erving, you know your role in that deal.''

Led by Conroy, Tre Simmons and 5-foot-9 guard Nate Robinson, Washington (29-5) surprised almost everyone when it was chosen as the top seed in the Albuquerque region. The Huskies are, by most accounts, one of the most lightly regarded top seeds in the history of the tournament.

Louisville (31-4) earned a shockingly low fourth seed, and this is the tailor-made opportunity for the Cardinals to show that was a mistake.

A master of motivation, Pitino has milked that snub for all its worth.

The Huskies, meanwhile, are tired of hearing they're overrated.

''They're a great team and maybe they deserved a No. 1 seed, too,'' Robinson said. ''But this game is just a game to get to the Elite Eight and that's the only way we're looking at it.''

If the Huskies were to make it, it would mark the program's first trip that far in the tournament since 1953 when they lost in the national semifinals and took third in the consolation game. That's not counting, of course, the 1997 movie starring Marlon Wayans that culminates with the fictional Huskies winning the national championship.

Romar has had a taste of the title — in 1995, when he spent his third of four years as an assistant to Jim Harrick at UCLA.

When Romar left St. Louis — where he went 2-0 against Pitino — and returned to his alma mater in 2002-03, he was faced with a team that had gone 31-58 over the past three seasons, a program with a few good players but no real history.

''The first thing we had to do was create a culture, a winning culture,'' Romar said. ''And not just the score at the end of games, but a model of how to do things as a program.''

That wasn't Pitino's challenge. He followed Denny Crum, who turned the Cardinals into one of the nation's top programs over a remarkable, 30-year run. They slumped a bit, but was there anyone who really doubted Pitino could get them back up to par — and quickly?

''You're always hoping that by the time your first graduating class leaves, you can turn around your program,'' Pitino said. ''We were very lucky. We improved right away.''

Led by Francisco Garcia (15 points a game) and Taquan Dean (who made a Louisville record 103 3-pointers this season), the Cardinals come into The Pit having won 20 of 21.

Pitino, always known for his pressing, pressuring style, has had to adjust this year, as injuries and illnesses left Louisville short-handed. Last week, for instance, the Cardinals smothered Georgia Tech with a 2-3 zone — about the last thing you'd expect from a Pitino team.

''We've played some games in the 50s and 60s, we've played some games in the 90s. It all depends on our health status,'' Pitino said.

Washington would prefer this game to be in the 90s. The Huskies have been running all season and more than making up for the lack of a dominant big man. At 6-foot-8, forwards Bobby Jones and Mike Jensen are the team's tallest major contributors.

Who will win the matchup of Xs and Os?

Romar isn't conceding anything.

''At this point, not much is going to change with the Xs and Os,'' Romar said. ''We are what we are, and Louisville is what they are.''

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