John Clay: Rick Pitino has his best chance to beat the Cats

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 23, 2012 

Louisville Western Kentucky Basketball

Louisville Coach Rick Pitino is 0-4 against John Calipari since the Kentucky coach took the job four years ago.


  • Next game

    Kentucky at Louisville

    When: 4 p.m. Saturday TV: CBS-27

There was that unfortunate personal scandal and successive first-round NCAA Tournament exits and the general consensus that given his previous accomplishments, Rick Pitino's Louisville job performance had not been up to expectations.

But as Mark Twain, who like Pitino once donned a white suit, famously said, "The reports of my (demise) have been great exaggerated."

This team, this 2012-13 Louisville basketball team, this running, gunning, notoriously thieving, impossibly deep Louisville basketball team, this is the best squad the former UK coach has put on the floor since he switched allegiances to U of L.

As the Cats prepare to pay a visit to the cash-strapped KFC Yum Center next Saturday, it's Pitino's glory days revisited. Louisville is 11-1 — Duke being its only conqueror — with a No. 5 AP ranking and the reputation of being among the fistful of teams with a real chance to be snipping the nets in Atlanta come April.

Louisville was a surprise guest in last year's Final Four, remember, ambushing Florida in the final minutes of the West Regional to award Pitino his sixth trip to a national semifinal. It was his second at Louisville and gave the coach the distinction of guiding a team to a Final Four in four decades.

Alas, a year ago in the Big Easy, beating Kentucky was too tough a task and Pitino dropped to 0-4 against John Calipari since the latter took up shop in Pitino's old office.

Stretching that streak to five, however, might be in one of those hard-to-reach places.

"They've got a veteran team," Calipari said Saturday of the Cards. "They've got everybody playing well. They're beating everybody by 30 and 40. Hard game for us. They've got terrific players, really good players. Hard game for us."

Louisville makes it hard everybody. These Cards are vintage Pitino, challenging every shot, every pass, nearly every dribble. Through 12 games, nine U of L opponents have committed at least 20 turnovers. Through 12 games, eight U of L opponents have shot less than 40 percent from the floor.

The backcourt tandem of senior Peyton Siva and junior Russ Smith forms the Cards' core. Siva was the pre-season choice for Big East Player of the Year. Smith, otherwise known as "Russdiculous," is the happy fellow sitting behind a huge stack of pancakes for a profile story in the current Sports Illustrated.

It's the development of Louisville's bigs that makes the Cards scary.

Chane Behanan is a rapid-rebounder who has scored in double figures his last three games. Fellow sophomore Wayne Blackshear has made 14 of 25 shots, including seven of 14 from three-point range his last two outings.

Freshman Montrezl Harrell is starting to log major minutes — a season-high 31 in the win at Memphis on Jan. 15 and 27 on his way to a 13-point performance against WKU on Saturday.

The Cards have been without shot-swatting center Gorgui Dieng for exactly a month. The junior from Senegal broke his wrist in the Bahamas. Pitino says he doesn't expect Dieng back before the Big East opener against Providence on January 2. Pitino has pronounced players as sidelined before, however, only to see them take the floor at tip-off.

As for this Saturday, the likely favorites claim Kentucky is just another game.

"Now, it's just one of those games where — I don't know if they're ranked or not — so we've just got to handle business at home," said Russ Smith after U of L's win over Florida International last Wednesday. "They're going to be hungry. So we're pretty much to the situation where we (we were against) Memphis. They weren't ranked, they needed a big win, we just have to kind of guard our home court."

In fact, according to WDRB's Rick Bozich, as Louisville was eating its pre-game meal before Saturday's game against Western in Nashville, the Cards were watching Kansas play Ohio State on CBS, not Kentucky versus Marshall on ESPN2.

Pitino said he told his team, "Guys, Kentucky's on."

The players said they didn't much care.

That changes this week. Kentucky returns. Pitino is back. And it's on, oh yeah, it's on.

John Clay: 859-231-3226. E-mail: Blog: Twitter: @johnclayiv.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service