Vaught's Views: Pitino owns UK-Louisville rivalry

December 29, 2003|LARRY VAUGHT

Rick Pitino now owns the state of Kentucky. Or at least the Kentucky-Louisville basketball series.

While University of Kentucky basketball fans may not want to admit that, or even believe it, there's no denying that Pitino has made his Louisville Cardinals the best team in the state.

Numbers don't lie. He beat UK 81-63 in Freedom Hall last year before the Cats went on their 26-game win streak that was snapped with a loss to Marquette in the NCAA Tournament Midwest Region final.

Saturday the Cats were supposed to pay the Cardinals back for that 2002 loss. UK was playing at Rupp Arena, had more experienced and was ranked No. 1 in the coaches' poll. But the Cardinals won 65-56.


Now one has to sense that Pitino is going to keep the upper hand in this rivalry just like he had when he was coaching Kentucky and going against the Cardinals. He's now 8-3 in the UK-Louisville series - 6-2 against Denny Crum when he was at UK and 2-1 against Tubby Smith since he's been at Louisville.

Pitino's team is going to not only get better this year, but also be better next year. He's already lined up one of the nation's top recruiting classes and that trend won't change in future years.

Remember his 1996 national championship team at Kentucky? That's the one that had current NBA stars Ron Mercer and Derek Anderson coming off the bench. It also had future NBA players Antoine Walker, Tony Delk, Walter McCarty, Nazr Mohammed and Mark Pope.

But Pitino doesn't need great talent to win. He took one star - Jamal Mashburn - and put players who knew his system and understood their roles around him and came close to winning a national title in 1992 when only a miracle shot by Duke's Christian Laettner kept UK out of the Final Four.

The Louisville coach just has that magical knack for knowing how far to physically and mentally to push a player before stopping and giving him a needed pat on the back. He's also a master not only of motivating his team, but lulling an opponent into a false sense of security with his lavish praise.

"I can't tell you how good Kentucky is on defense," Pitino said after Saturday's win. "They are scary good. They did not let us run 50 percent of our offense."

If that's true, then Louisville was still good enough to beat UK using less than half of its half-court offense. Now that's a scary thought - or should be - for UK players and fans.

Of course, Louisville's defense wasn't that complicated. Regardless of what some still think, Pitino's teams don't just run, press and shoot 3-pointers. Pitino knew Kentucky's best offense was its transition game. No way was he going to press and give up easy shots.

The Cards also went inside at every opportunity when they had the ball, one reason they shot just 14 3-pointers compared to UK's 25.

"We had to cover inside. It goes against what I believe, but if we had to give up something, we were going to give up the 3," Pitino said.

That's because he feared only two UK shooters - Gerald Fitch and Kelenna Azubuike. He wasn't going to let Chuck Hayes and Erik Daniels take easy shots inside and wasn't going to alter his strategy just because Cliff Hawkins made some early 3-pointers.

Pitino's defense frustrated Fitch, UK's leading scorer, just as it did Keith Bogans last year when he went 5-for-15 from the field. Fitch was 3-for-12 from the field, including 2-for-10 from 3-point range.

Just as they did last year, the Cats raced to an early lead. Last year it was 20-9, this year it was 24-10. Both times Pitino was convinced Kentucky would wear down and the Cats did - even in the final part of the first half when they got just two field goals in the last 9 minutes, 38 seconds after taking the 14-point lead.

"As the game went on, they just ran out of gas," Louisville's Luke Whitehead said.

Pitino was running full throttle after the game, too, when he talked about the obstacles his team overcame to win. He even explained why it was only right for UK fans to now boo him because he was coaching the visiting team.

"I love this place for eight years. I was treated like royalty. Now I am the opposing coach and shouldn't be treated that way," Pitino said.

But you know he loves beating UK. Last year he did it with Marvin Stone, a UK transfer, scoring 16 points, blocking two shots and grabbing seven rebounds. Saturday he got seven points and two key steals from Alhaji Mohammed, the younger brother of Nazr Mohammed.

Still, Pitino refused to gloat publicly even though his players said he wasted no time telling them how much the win meant to him.

"This happens once in a lifetime," Pitino said of Saturday's upset.

Wrong. It's happened two years in a row and based on the way the Cards are being dealt, it looks like it's going to happen a whole lot more.

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