John Clay: Commonwealth is lucky to have two top coaches

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 30, 2012 

To Kentucky fans, Rick Pitino is Traitor Rick.

To Louisville fans, John Calipari is Con Man Cal.

Who knows what the two men really think of each other.

On this Final Four day, however, on this day of the greatest sporting event in our state's history, let's push all the insults off the table.

As a commonwealth, let's stand united in one source of pride: These guys can flat-out coach.

They have proven it this year by using different methods to drive different teams on different paths to the same spot on the sport's biggest stage.

Louisville is the underdog no one expected to be here, least of all its fans.

Kentucky is the overdog everyone expected to be here, most of all its fans.

What Louisville lacks in stars, it makes up for in depth and combinations. Nine different Cardinals averaged 12 or more minutes per game this season.

What Kentucky lacks in depth, it makes up for in fresh and fabulous talent, plus iron will. Just six different Cats averaged 12 or more minutes per game this season.

Louisville lost a game at lowly Providence by 31 points, a bashing so humiliating you doubted the Cards' psyche could ever recover.

Kentucky lost one regular-season game, by all of one point, an outcome so bitter the Cats prayed they would get a chance to right such an egregious wrong. (They did.)

Louisville had to brush aside low expectations. Kentucky had to deal with ridiculously high expectations.

Each coach succeeded to the point where they were sitting at the podium on Friday inside the Superdome talking about their epic Final Four matchup on Saturday.

Personal feelings, aside.

Calipari on Pitino's strength: "Bringing teams together, motivating teams to play at a high level, coming up with schemes and different ways of playing that gives his teams a chance to win, pushing them to places they don't want to go by themselves and making them do things they didn't think were possible."

Post-season, Pitino pushed all the right buttons. For an unranked 22-9 team, the Big East Tournament offered a fresh start. Four games later, confident Cards were climbing ladders and snipping nets.

"We just got back to playing our style of basketball, which is pressing, up-tempo, just playing faster," redshirt junior Jared Swopshire said Friday. "I think that was the turning point for us."

In the West Region semifinal, Pitino's legendary preparation skills limited top seed Michigan State to 44 points.

In the final, Florida scorched U of L's matchup zone defense, so Pitino implemented a switching man-to-man that caused the Gators to miss all nine of their second-half three-point attempts. That's coaching.

Pitino on Calipari's strength: "He probably coaches young players better than anybody in the game. I don't know if I would ever want to do it or ever could do it, to coach a new group of freshmen every year. ... This group has handled themselves as well as any group. They act like veterans. They play like veterans. So I'm real impressed with that."

Calipari doesn't rebuild, he reloads. Under Calipari, Kentucky has been flush with talent, but also flush with freshmen. They must grow. They must learn. They must learn to play together.

No coach in the business is better at getting his players to do the latter. To play at UK, McDonald's All-Americans must check their scouting service egos at the Joe Craft Center door. There has been no dissension, no discord, no rivets of resentment over points or publicity.

As Calipari points out constantly, his two best players may well be Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Yet in the statistical category of shots taken, they rank fourth and fifth, respectively, on the team.

There is an art to getting gifted players to flourish in a sacrificial system for the good of the team. That's coaching.

"He just demands it," said UK senior Darius Miller on Friday. "We work on it every day."

And if the two coaches who toil 80 miles apart harbor a dislike for each other, they also push each other.

Calipari's success has made Pitino work harder at recruiting. Pitino's legacy has made Calipari work harder at maximizing his team's potential.

They are too much alike to really like each other.

But in turn they give us something to like, and appreciate: One state, two great coaches.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog:

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