In the mind of Kentucky fans, there could be no greater indignity than the thought of these mighty Wildcats arriving at the 2012 Final Four and being undone not just by Louisville but by a Louisville team coached by Rick Pitino. It would be worse than Christian Laettner undoing the Unforgettables as coached by Pitino. It would be …
It would be like Laettner’s school (Duke) losing to North Carolina in the Final Four — with Mike Krzyzewski coaching the Tar Heels.
Even before the delicious match was officially made, Pitino — who coached Kentucky to the sixth of its seven NCAA titles — was waxing evocative. “There will be people in Kentucky who will have a nervous breakdown if they lose to us,” he told reporters Saturday after his Cardinals overhauled Florida to take the West Regional. “They’ve got to put the fences up on the bridges.”
The days leading to Saturday’s Final Four collision will be fraught with angst in the Bluegrass, especially for the Big Blue side. “These people are crazy,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said Sunday, speaking of his fanatic fans. “As a coach, it’s what you want. But when you’re in it — these people are crazy.”
And here we pause to offer this word from a native Kentuckian (me) who is a UK grad (1977) and the son of a graduate of Louisville’s dental school (1953): Relax, ‘Cat fans. It’s not going to happen. Louisville and Pitino will make Kentucky sweat, but the ‘Ville isn’t going to win Saturday in New Orleans.
Louisville: Very good team. Kentucky: Great team. There’s your difference.
We saw it again Sunday in the Georgia Dome. We saw why this NCAA tournament began with many fine teams but only one Kentucky. The Wildcats opened the South Regional final by falling behind Baylor 10-5, and the Bears were thought to be one of the few teams with the raw talent to hang with Kentucky. Next thing you knew, Baylor was down 40-18.
Said Baylor’s Scott Drew: “As a coach you ask yourself, ‘Was that team as good as I expected?’ Kentucky was actually better than I thought.”
The Bears’ Perry Jones III, considered a probable NBA lottery pick, made one first-half basket against Kentucky. Brady Heslip, who scored seven points in the first six minutes of Baylor’s dismissal of Xavier on Friday, officially didn’t take a first-half shot Sunday. (He did get fouled in the act of shooting.) The defense that never got a grip against Indiana in the regional semi threw a hammerlock on the Bears, and that’s usually what Kentucky does.
Offensively? Well, Calipari’s Dribble Drive offense wrought its customary divide-and-conquer havoc, and the Wildcats turned defensive stops into fast-break highlights. Drew again: “Our goal was no dunks, but that went out the window four seconds into the game.”
That was an exaggeration — the first Wildcat dunk came after 6 1/2 minutes — but that’s kind of what Kentucky does: It inspires hyperbole in outsiders.
But not, significantly, among Wildcats. They don’t seem overly impressed with anything they do. Said Calipari: “This team hasn’t been rattled all year.”
That mettle will be tested during the run-up to the Louisville game — actually the second Louisville game of the season; Kentucky beat the Cardinals 69-62 in Rupp Arena on New Year’s Eve — but it’s an exam these Wildcats should ace. As center Anthony Davis said, his team will approach Saturday’s national semifinal as “Kentucky against the next team in our way.”
Calipari’s recruiting, which entails roaming far and wide to sign gifted prospects who aren’t apt to stay long, will actually be a boon. See, none of the Wildcats’ starters are from Kentucky.
Asked if his task to block distractions would be greater if he had five guys from Maysville, Ky. (the hometown of both sixth man Darius Miller and this correspondent), Calipari said: “Probably. Me personally, I’m not from Kentucky. I say, ‘[Louisville is] in a different league and we play them once a year. Why are you [fans] getting all worked up?’ ”
The greatest pressure will fall on Calipari, who was once seen as a Pitino protege but who characterized their relationship this way Sunday: “We don’t send each other Christmas cards.”
Are they friends? Acquaintances? “Friendly acquaintances,” he said, prompting a laugh from the assembled media.
It’s not impossible that Pitino could outcoach Calipari — Pitino has outcoached a lot of folks in his time — but the manpower gap will be too great for even the maestro to span. On its best day, Louisville is a very good team. On its worst day, Kentucky is still nearly a great one. There’s your difference.
By Mark Bradley