And as much as the up-and-down style, the pressure defense and the reliance on the 3-pointer that Pitino has always taught, Donovan says he's learned about the commitment it takes for a coach to connect with a player.
"I tell everybody I hire that I'm not hiring an assistant coach; I'm hiring a future head coach, and I expect them to act like a head coach," Pitino said. "I expect them to be under the same pressure I'm under, where they drive themselves to the same limits. Billy was no different."
This wasn't only a one-way street. Pitino did some learning from his protege, as well.
This has been a season of ups and downs for the Cardinals, who rose as high as fourth in The Associated Press poll in December but impressed nobody during a 10-8 Big East regular season.
"That experience in 1987 always allowed me to dream," Pitino said. "I've always dreamed we could get here, one game away from the Final Four. I never thought we were out of it. I've never stopped dreaming because of what that team did."
Pitino has a versatile team with no real superstar. Center Gorgui Dieng, out of Senegal, averages nine points, nine rebounds and more than four blocks a game. He blocked seven in Louisville's 57-44 win over Michigan State on Thursday. Point guard Peyton Siva averages 5.5 assists a game and is Pitino's coach on the floor.
He says he'd wear a cowboy hat if Pitino asked.
"If he told me to put a tutu on in front of ESPN, I'd go do that," Siva said.
If things break right, who knows, maybe one of the teams playing Saturday will celebrate the kind of reunion the 1987 Providence team is planning.
A few months from now, those Friars will get together for their 25-year reunion. Donovan's teammates, Delray Brooks and Marty Conlon, will be on the guest list, as will Rick Van Gundy and Herb Sendek, a few more entries on Pitino's coaching tree.
Donovan and Pitino are planning to be there.
When they meet, the memories of Saturday's game, and whatever comes of it, still will be fresh. The results, however, figure to have very little impact on a friendship that goes beyond wins and losses.
"Not at all," Pitino said when asked if it's torture for him to play Donovan with so much on the line. "It's the opposite for me. Because if I were playing School X and we lost, I'd be devastated to not be going to the Final Four. In this situation, I'd be professionally down about not going to the Final Four, but personally, I'd be very happy for Billy Donovan."
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