NEW ORLEANS - Notes and quotes from the weekend Final Four:
Rick Pitino has the unique distinction of coaching Kentucky to a national championship in 1996 and then coaching Louisville this weekend in a 69-61 loss to Kentucky at the Final Four.
Pitino’s ‘96 Kentucky team was loaded, maybe the best college basketball team since the Duke and UNLV teams in the early ‘90s, led by guys like Antoine Walker, Derek Anderson, Tony Delk, Walter McCarty, Ron Mercer, etc.
Pitino was asked after Saturday’s loss to the Wildcats to compare his ‘96 Kentucky team to Coach John Calipari’s current bunch of Wildcats.
“Every team is different,” Pitino said diplomatically. “We had an average margin of victory in the SEC of 28. We had very few close games. We were a very deep team - much deeper than this team. But their (top) six are every bit as good as our six.”
TONY DELK: Speaking of Delk, I ran into him in Atlanta at the South Regional last weekend and visited a few minutes. And I was reminded that Tony Delk is not only as nice a guy as I’ve ever come across in some 20 years covering UK basketball, but is simply as nice a guy as you’ll find in any walk of life.
Delk enjoyed several good years in the NBA before deciding to try coaching three years ago. He served as a volunteer assistant at UK on Calipari’s first team two years ago and is now an assistant coach in a good program at New Mexico State.
I asked Delk last weekend – this was right before the Kentucky-Baylor regional final – if he was going to the Georgia Dome to see the game. Delk said Derek Anderson had called and invited him, but he declined.
“I’m going to watch the game in my hotel room by myself,” Delk said. “I get too nervous.”
Nice to see a guy like Delk, some 16 years removed from his playing days at Kentucky, still so loyal to Big Blue Nation. And Calipari deserves some credit for that, for the way the current UK coach has worked to bring back ex-Cats to the flock.
I understand those UK fans who can’t forgive Rick Pitino for coming back to college coaching at Louisville in 2001, 11 years ago after earlier coaching Kentucky to so many successful seasons.
I’m just not one of those people. And I’m happy at the way Pitino has revitalized his coaching career just in the past month or so. After the Cardinals lost at home to South Florida on Feb. 29, Pitino was under an inferno of fire...people suggesting he was out of touch with the game and with today’s college player.
But, since then, Rick Pitino has reminded us that he’s still very much one of the best coaches in the game. Maybe ever. That he’s not already in the basketball Hall of Fame is a travesty. And his Louisville team promises to be knocking on the door of the Final Four again next spring, despite losing seniors Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith, and red-shirt junior Jared Swopshire.
Peyton Siva and Russ Smith could be one of the nation’s top backcourts next season, forward Chane Behanon and Wayne Blackshear are stars in the making, and center Gorgui Dieng is only a little more strength away from being a dominant college center.
We could see both Louisville and Kentucky back on this stage again next season.
I was surprised both in driving down here from Lexington on Friday and then going out on Bourbon Street to see even more Louisville fans than Kentucky fans. At least that was my impression.
I don’t know how ticket sales break down between the two fan bases, I’d say it was 55-45 U of L people. I do think maybe a friend’s suggestion that U of L fans may have had more money to make a trip here – choosing this journey and staying away from other distant post-season sites – New York, Portland, Ore., and Phoenix. Whereas a lot of UK fans made this trip to New Orleans three weeks ago for the SEC Tournament, then made the relatively easy jaunts to Louisville and Atlanta for NCAA play.
Whatever, both fan bases from Kentucky and Louisville dwarfed the fans from Ohio State and Kansas.
It seemed like the fans both on the UK side and U of L side were good sports on the street. Not sure I can say the same for the Ohio State fans. My brother Tom kept welcoming Buckeye fans to “the Kentucky Invitational,” and they seemed sensitive about it. And this was Friday night, before the Buckeyes were upset, 64-62, by Kansas in the other national semifinal.
And I should add that in Tom’s case, when he says Kentucky Invitational, he’s referring to the collective fan bases of both UK and Louisville. Tom and I both root for Louisville when the Cardinals are not playing the Wildcats.
I made the unfortunate mistake of getting to my media hotel Friday night much too early, around 7:30. And then went to Bourbon Street, just for research purposes, so I could provide some local flavor for you. But at least I didn’t cap off three hours on Bourbon Street with Krystal Burgers, as some friends did. I felt MUCH better than they did on Saturday morning.
This was my first trip to New Orleans since I lived near here for two-plus years in the early to mid-’80s. And I’ve been impressed with what I see here some 27 years later. I was not a big fan of New Orleans in the ’80s. It was too dirty, too raunchy, and in my mind, if you didn’t have the money to enjoy the great food, which I didn’t, I didn’t see a lot of point in coming here.
But I see a different New Orleans now...much cleaner, much friendlier. As raunchy as Bourbon Street can be, I feel much safer there now than I did way back then. And I’m not sure how much of this change is due to the cleanup and reconstruction since Hurricane Katrina and how much is just some progressive thinking on the part of state and local government, though I realize that progressive thinking and Louisiana/New Orleans politics have not been words commonly thrown into the same sentence.
I’ve been going to this small crepe place this weekend near my hotel in the French Quarter. And on my first morning here, Saturday, I started talking with the woman working the counter and in the conversation she told me she is from Lexington and her father, Jeff Frederick, had played basketball at my high school alma mater, Tates Creek. Jeff graduated from TCHS in 1976, the same year I did.
I found that bizarre to come all this way and discover a small-world moment like that. Though as comedian Steven Wright once said, “It’s a small world. But I wouldn’t want to paint it.”
UK coach John Calipari was asked Friday about a comment he made early this season when he suggested that UK is the only major basketball player in Kentucky. That comment offended Louisville fans.
Calipari said this weekend that he did not mean those comments to come out as they did.
“The state is unique in that Kentucky fans are throughout the state,” Calipari said. “You don’t have many North Carolina fans in Durham or Duke fans in Chapel Hill. It’s just different. Now, Louisville has their base of fans. Louisville is a great program. They have a 22,000 seat arena and they sell it out every game.
“What I said was, we have a ton of Kentucky fans in Louisville. It’s just unique. There was no disrespect. It wasn’t meant to.”
NCAA head speaks
NCAA president Mark Emmert spoke here in New Orleans over the weekend and touched on a number of subjects, including educating NCAA student-athletes (he’s for it), and the possibility of a playoff in Division I college football.
“Well, as everyone knows, we don’t get to make the decision (huh?),” Emmert said of a possible football playoff. “So it will be up to the university presidents and commissioners of the FBS. I’m just reading the tea leaves pretty much like you, (but) the momentum seems to be towards an eight-team playoff. I don’t know whether it will really occur or not, but I think there’s a reasonable possibility it could. If they want the NCAA involved in any fashion (funny, huh?), we’re more than happy to be helpful.”