Rick Pitino was in an upbeat mood, which you would expect from a coach who just saw his head-case-of-a-point guard, a guy who earlier that week he’d urged to transfer, hit a 28-foot shot to beat Kentucky on national television.
Edgar Sosa, who rejected his coach’s suggestion that he find another school during the Christmas break, drained a three-pointer that made Pitino a winner in the series for the fourth time in eight games as Louisville’s head coach. It took a last-second bomb to make it happen.
He’s known the other side of the story. Remember, it was Pitino who had to answer questions after Christian Laettner sank the most (in)famous game-winning shot in UK basketball history.
So Pitino was particularly gracious in his remarks about the Wildcats, a team he believes could be destined for great things.
“I think they’re a hell of a basketball team,” he said. “I’ll be shocked, if the players keep understanding their egos and their roles, I’ll be shocked if they’re not in the thick of the SEC race.” It’s a race, by the way, which begins Saturday in Rupp Arena, with Vanderbilt coming to Lexington.
Pitino especially liked UK’s offensive efficiency, as well as its defensive prowess. He even invoked a reference to his NCAA championship squad, back when he coached on this end of I-64.
“When you look at the statistics, you say, that’s like the statistics I had in ‘96, with field goal offense and field goal defense – plus 15 (UK’s shooting percentage on offense being 15 percentage points higher than what it yields on defense).
“You turn around and say, it’s because of the teams we play – half true. But you watch them execute. They didn’t give up against West Virginia; Kansas State was in their jock, it looks like it’s their game. They didn’t give up – they kept working.”
The Cats did not get caught up in a track meet-style of game with the Cards, who shot quick three-pointers whenever they became available. Kentucky worked its offense through two, three, even four options, the Wildcats constantly searching for Patrick Patterson inside (22 points) or Jodie Meeks roaming the perimeter (28 points).
“I love that team because they take high-percentage shots every time down the floor,” Pitino said. “The only one who doesn’t is Meeks, and he makes all the difficult ones. “
UK fans have seen lopsided scoresheets all year. It’s a cause for concern, it seems, to everyone but their coach.
“I’m not that much into all that kind of stuff,” Billy Gillispie said. “I guess Dick Vitale gave you all inspiration to write stuff like that. He knows everything and he says we need a third scorer, someone told me. But if you get 28 and 22 from two, you don’t need to get that many more, so I’ll take six and eight from a bunch of guys, more so than trying to develop one guy and not develop the others.”
Conventional thinking is that if either Meeks or Patterson has an off night, a consistent third scorer could help prevent disaster. Pitino believes the Wildcats are on the right track, anyway.
“Very rarely in the college game, because of the egos, do people understand their roles, and where their bread is buttered. The Kentucky kids know where their bread is buttered. Porter knows exactly what to do, exactly how to get people the ball. They go high-low, they know how to get Patterson the ball. They take incredibly high-percentage shots.
“You won’t find two better players in the country than Meeks and Patterson. But if the other players don’t understand their role, don’t understand those two guys, then they wouldn’t be as good as they are, and the other players do. They play great defense, they rebound really well, they’re extremely well-coached.
“Kentucky is a really good basketball team and I really like them as a team and I’m not saying that in a patronizing way because we won. I really like what they do, offensively and defensively.”
Gillispie said the same thing about the Cardinals prior to the matchup, which lived up to the hype that’s surrounded the “Dream Game” since 1984, when the teams again started playing during the regular season. None will ever live up to the original, the 1983 NCAA Mideast Regional championship game. Even if the Cats and Cards some day meet again in a regional final, it wouldn’t be the same, simply because they’ve been playing each year.
Ever since then, the level of intensity from talk-show callers, on the message boards and in the stands routinely has over-shadowed what’s happened on the court. Not Sunday.
“To be honest with you,” Pitino said, “I’ve been involved in so many of these games… most of the other games haven’t been great games. Tonight was a great basketball game. Two teams shooting a high percentage; two teams making free throws; two teams executing big plays. They did it down the stretch on defense, we did it most of the game.
“This was a great game. It’s unfortunate somebody had to lose.”
If you believe the former UK coach, the guy currently in charge of the Wildcats won’t see many more losses this season.