Rick Pitino is coaching Panathinaikos in Greece this season, and he has seen things in Hellas that he never came close to seeing in America … a forfeited game, a game in which nobody older than 15 was allowed into the arena, and another game in which his team’s biggest rival refused to come out of the locker room at halftime.
“Panathinaikos and Olympiacos is the biggest rivalry in all of sports anywhere in the world, and nothing in America compares to it,” Pitino told Heavy.com.
But Pitino has also been watching the NCAA tournament quite closely, and he believes the Virginia Cavaliers will emerge victorious Monday night at the championship game in Minneapolis.
“Fast-break teams usually lose to slow-down teams, and that is tough for me to say because I like to play a fast-paced game,” Pitino said. “But I picked Virginia when this thing began, and I am sticking with my pick.
The Final Four happens Saturday night with Virginia playing Auburn in the first game and Michigan State going against Texas Tech in the second game.
“It’s a particularly interesting Final Four because there are no superstar one-and-done players left, and no Top 5 NBA draft picks,” said Pitino, who stated the only player left in the Final Four who could be an NBA lottery pick is Texas Tech swingman, Jarrett Culver.
Speaking of Culver, he’s a player who the Knicks are high on if they fail to get the No. 1 or No. 2 pick in the draft lottery, from what I am told. (It should be noted that Texas Tech forward Tariq Owens, who attended Mt. Zion Academy in high school and transferred to the Red Raiders from St. John’s, projects as a late first-round to early second-round pick.)
“The Michigan State-Texas Tech game will be a tossup. Two great coaches and the game could go either way. All four coaches have gotten their teams to overachieve, and the motivation of all four of these teams has been brilliant,” Pitino said. “Whether it’s Michigan State of Texas Tech, one of them is going to give Virginia all they can handle.”
Pitino’s goal is to return to the NBA, but he would not comment on any coaching possibilities in the NBA because there currently are not any jobs open. (Among coaches, it is considered a breach of protocol to lobby for a position currently held by somebody else.) Possible job openings could happen with the Timberwolves, Lakers, Wizards, Suns and Sixers, among others.
So in the meantime, Pitino is having a European adventure that is beyond his wildest expectations.
Panathinaikos is currently 15-14, good for 7th place in EuroLeague — with the top 8 teams making the playoffs. He also is competing in the Greek League and in the Greek Cup, and Panathinaikos played a Greek League game in an empty arena against Peristeri on Sunday after Perestreri was penalized due to its fans having a chair-throwing riot in their previous game against Aris.
Panathinaikos also defeated Olympiacos in a forfeit because rival coach David Blatt was unhappy with the referee assignments, and there was another Olympiacos-Panathinaikos game at which Blatt refused to send his team out for the second half because of his gripes about the officiating. Also an in-game against PAOK, nobody over the age of 16 was admitted into the game in an effort to prevent fights among rival fans.
“When I came here, the team had no shot at the playoffs, but we have been banging out road victories and the team is going much farther than anyone ever expected,” Pitino said. “The fans have really embraced me.”
Looking forward, Pitino is embracing Virginia in the NCAA Final Four. We shall see if his crystal ball is clear or cloudy.