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Coach Rick Pitino, Louisville Cardinals show how it's done in NCAA Tournament, much to the dismay of Kentucky Wildcats fans

INDIANAPOLIS — Ah, now I know why Kentucky fired Billy Gillispie.

Turns out, he wasn't Rick Pitino.

Say what you want about the rabid nature of the Wildcats' basketball fans, but after all these years, that's really all they want. And is it so much to ask?

They want a slick, sharp coach on the bench. They want him to unleash a team such as the Cardinals upon the rest of college basketball like Huns attacking the Great Wall. They want to break the scoreboard, demoralize the opposition and serve notice upon the field.

Most of all, they want possibilities.

Frankly, they want to be Louisville.

And if you know a Kentucky basketball fan, you know how painful that must be to admit.

Tell me. Short of a scandal or three, has there ever been a worse day to be a Kentucky fan? First of all, Gillispie was fired in disgrace, which either came much too early (the prevailing national opinion) or much too late (the overwhelming viewpoint of the Wildcat faithful). Then, before you can dribble a ball the length of a court, their designated next-guy, Billy Donovan, flatly turned them down … again. Evidently, having two years to reconsider didn't change a thing for Donovan.

Then, after all that, they had to withstand this:

Louisville, the new team of Kentucky's old coach, looks a lot like a champion-in-waiting.

The Cardinals were darned near perfect against Arizona on Friday. They ran, they shot, they passed, they defended, they rebounded. They drubbed Arizona 103-64, the most points Louisville has scored in an NCAA Tournament game. If it hadn't been for a late burst of mercy, the 39-point margin might have been 60.

For one night, at least, the Cardinals had the look of greatness. They are so deep, so skilled. The players come at an opponent all at once, and all can dribble, and all can shoot. They dunk, and it is like hearing an airplane break the sound barrier. It is difficult to tell guards from forwards or subs from starters. Stopping them is like trying to hold back a flood with a sponge.

Want to know how wonderful the Cardinals were? Just ask Pitino, who sounded like Roger Ebert at a foreign film festival.

"Fabulous," Pitino said.

"Brilliant," he said.

"Dominating," he added.

So it went. Pitino, 56, also said "tremendous" and "great" and "terrific" and "beautiful" and "unselfish." You kept waiting for him to give his team an enthusiastic thumbs-up. For the record, Pitino also suggested that humility was very, very important.

The thing is, who is going to disagree? The Cardinals shot 57 percent from the floor, and 93 percent from the free-throw line, and they outrebounded Arizona, and they had 29 assists to only nine turnovers. It looked as if everyone else was playing one game of basketball, and the Cardinals were playing something better, something more pure.

Did anyone see a flaw? Oh, Pitino apologized for the final dunks of the game, but they were just exclamation points on a paragraph. The message already had been sent.

Who is going to stop Louisville if the Cards play this close to capacity? Pitt? North Carolina? Connecticut?

Anyone?

"It's going to be hard to beat them if they play like that," Arizona coach Russ Pennell said. "I think it has to be someone who has the quickness to really put pressure against their fullcourt press. Yet Louisville kind of preys upon people who do that."

For the opponent, that's the conundrum. For the Cardinals, it is matching their own excellence.

"We know we're not going to play like this again," Pitino said, "because of the types of defenses we're going to run into now. It's going to be a totally different type of game. We did a great job getting second shots tonight. Michigan State and Kansas don't give you those.

"Guys, we all know we're one game from the Final Four. We're three games from the national championship. I think this team has stayed grounded. Their egos are in check. I'll find something to be upset about. We're not going to fall in love with ourselves because we had a good game. We understand what we're up against."

In the old days, back before the Wildcats were in a snit — you spell it with an "N" and an "I" and a "T" — coaches at Kentucky used to talk like that. They, too, played like a regal team about to storm the castle. They, too, looked like the team to beat.

As for that brunet in the fifth row cheering on the Cardinals?

No, that wasn't Ashley Judd.

Was it?

Coach Rick Pitino, Louisville Cardinals show how it's done in NCAA Tournament, much to the dismay of Kentucky Wildcats fans 03/27/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 28, 2009 6:47am]
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