Dec. 19, 2004
The Kentucky-Louisville rivalry is one of the best in college basketball, right up there with Duke-North Carolina. The Red vs. Blue rivalry continued Saturday at Louisville, with Kentucky rallying from a 16-point halftime deficit for a 60-58 victory. It was something special, baby!
Kentucky coach Tubby Smith's young Wildcats were ready for battle against Rick Pitino's Cardinals. What always makes this game so special is the presence of Pitino (the former Kentucky coach) against Smith (his former assistant) in a chess match for supremacy in the state. Pitino told me recently that as he looks back on his career, he wishes he never left the Wildcats for the Boston Celtics in 1997.
Pitino Regrets Decision to Leave Kentucky
Pitino was happy and content in his eight seasons at Kentucky. He loved working for athletic director C.M. Newton, and he appreciated the way the Kentucky basketball program was treated. He led the Wildcats to a national title in 1996 and then back to the championship game in '97 (falling to Arizona).
Pitino had things rolling at Kentucky, and now he realizes he's fortunate to be leading Louisville back to prominence.
When the NBA came calling, Pitino said he should have listened to the advice given to him a long, long time ago by our friend, the late Jimmy Valvano.
Jimmy V said he was about to leave NC State and take the New Jersey Nets coaching job. But then, as he told Pitino, he realized that you never want to mess with happiness. Pitino said he should have thought of that instead of the challenge and money presented by the NBA.
After leaving the Celtics early in 2001, Pitino became head coach of the Cardinals in the spring of '01 and is now in his fourth season at the Louisville helm. With the support of athletic director Tom Jurich, the 52-year-old Pitino has done a great job, averaging 21 wins per season and leading the Cardinals to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments.
Tubby's Kentucky Connection: Pitino's Amazing Staff
Meanwhile, Tubby Smith was part of Pitino's coaching staff at Kentucky from 1989-91, followed by head-coaching stops at Tulsa and Georgia.
He took over the reigns at Kentucky in 1997 when Pitino left for the Celtics, winning the '98 national championship in his first season. In his seven seasons in Lexington, his teams have reached five Sweet Sixteens and three Elite Eights.
The Pitino staff that Smith was part of remains one of the greatest coaching staffs ever assembled: Tubby, Billy Donovan, Ralph Willard and Herb Sendek (all head coaches now).
That staff is up there with the North Carolina unit of Bill Guthridge, Roy Williams and Eddie Fogler under Dean Smith.
There's so much at stake in this rivalry because emotions run so high.
In fact, a recent development in the feud came when Kentucky engineered a deal with Louisville-based radio station WHAS, a 50,000-watt station, to broadcast Wildcats games over Cardinals games on the priority scale starting in 2007. That shook up Louisville fans.
One Louisville executive said, "We beat them in football and basketball, so the only way to beat us is to write a check and get the rights."
The past two years, Louisville has handled Kentucky (81-63 in 2003, 65-56 last season). Pitino gets the maximum out of his people, as displayed by a recent win over Florida. Francisco Garcia and Taquan Dean work beautifully together. Containing Garcia and Dean is not an easy assignment.
Pitino does a masterful job of maximizing his players' skills. Louisville doesn't have great size inside, and Otis George was sidelined earlier with a foot injury. But crazy things happen when the opponent is Kentucky, and players tend to heal more quickly. George played 21 minutes vs. the 'Cats, scoring six points and grabbing six rebounds.
The Wildcats present matchup problems for smaller teams like the Cardinals (the 'Cats did so against Indiana too). Shagari Alleyne has become a force off the bench for Tubby. The size of Alleyne and Randolph Morris gives Kentucky two big men as factors on the interior. The strength and tenacity of Chuck Hayes, who has led Kentucky in rebounding each game so far this season, is another plus for the 'Cats.
I love the battle of Blue vs. Red. It's always such a special environment.
Dick Vitale coached the Pistons and the University of Detroit before broadcasting ESPN's first college basketball game in December 1979. Send him a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.