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By LARRY VAUGHT
Dick Vitale thinks there will be “lots of jubilation” for both Kentucky and Louisville fans next basketball season, but the colorful ESPN analyst gives the edge to John Calipari’s team. Here is part of what he wrote in a recent post:
“The Wildcats have great depth thanks to an outstanding recruiting class. I honestly believe that Kentucky’s second team would be good enough to be ranked in the top 20 by themselves! I know there were plenty of detractors looking at last year’s squad.
“Remember, the Cats did win 21 games and they beat Florida and Missouri. Guys like Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein and Kyle Wiltjer will be that much better with the added year of experience. They can serve in a role similar to Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller on the national title team, mentoring the younger players. Those guys have now seen quality minutes on the road and in challenging situations. They will help the young guys blend in and get a feel for the competition.
“Kentucky will be a much better team, especially on the perimeter with the addition of the Harrison Twins. That will take care of the dilemma that hurt them big-time last season. There was inconsistency from Archie Goodwin (who left for the pros) and Ryan Harrow (transferred out). They were not up to the standards Calipari was used to on the perimeter. That will change.
“Louisville has unbelievable talent returning with Russ Smith passing on the NBA. Luke Hancock is more confident after earning the Most Outstanding Player honor at the Final Four. He will have a greater role. Chane Behanan showed what he is capable of on the glass in crunch time in Atlanta. Wayne Blackshear is also back, and Kevin Ware should be healthy too following that gruesome injury in the NCAA tournament. Pitino has recruited well too.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Dick Vitale admits he was “crushed” when he watched Kentucky freshman center Nerlens Noel get injured during UK’s loss at Florida Tuesday night on ESPN.
He was even more despondent Wednesday when he learned that Noel, the nation’s top shot blocker (106) and UK’s leading rebounder (9.5 per game), had torn a ligament in his left knee and would not play again this season.
“Something like this just crushes you,” said Vitale. “I liked him. Really liked him. I went to his high school game. I talked to him before the game last night. He is a good kid. He plays hard and busts his butt out there.
“He was so good defensively to make up for offensive shortcomings. He has not even touched his potential yet. That’s why you hate to see this.”
Noel, who averaged 10.5 points per game, had eight points, six rebounds, three blocks and one steal in 23 minutes at Florida before hurting his knee trying to block a shot after a UK turnover.
“Obviously it is a major loss for Kentucky because he was such an impact player on defense,” Vitale said. “Losing a quality guy like that has to hurt you. Others now have to step up and take their play to another level. Willie Cauley-Stein is going to have to really respond with him out.
“They could still be a good team, but not an elite team. Their guard play is too up and down for that, maybe even with Noel from what we had seen. They could not get any rhythm at Florida because of their inconsistent guard play.
“The results don’t lie. Notre Dame, Baylor, Louisville. The big games they have lost have not been from a lack of effort or talent. They just don’t have enough veteran players or consistent guard play, and now this.”
Kentucky dropped to 17-7 overall and 8-3 in Southeastern Conference play with Tuesday’s loss. Kentucky plays at Tennessee Saturday and still has games at Arkansas and Georgia left along with home games against Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Missouri and Florida.
“I think they will still be in the NCAA Tournament. They have talent and there are games they can win if their kids are up to the challenge, and I think they will,” Vitale said.
The ESPN analyst is just as optimistic that Noel’s future won’t be permanently altered by this injur.
“Many players come back from this type of injury. It will take a lot of hard work, but he can still have a long career,” Vitale said. “The bottom line is a NBA team at the top (of the draft) will talk with UK folks and those who do the surgery. If all goes well, I still think he will be a top three pick (in the June NBA draft) if that’s the way he wants to go.”
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By LARRY VAUGHT
ATLANTA — Former Kentucky star Jeff Sheppard and Duke standout Christian Laettner combined forces at a fundraiser here Tuesday before the UK-Duke game in the Georgia Dome to help raise $10,000 in honor of Dick Vitale for the V Foundation to use for pediatric cancer research.
Laettner even agreed to let the five high bidders take a picture with him laying on the floor and each person stomping on him similar to what he did UK’s Aminu Timberlake in that historic 1992 NCAA Tournament overtime game won by Duke. “It’s for charity, so why not have fun,” said Laettner.
Here are some other insights on Kentucky coach John Calipari, Vitale and UK fans that Laettner shared.
Question: What is your opinion of John Calipari?
Laettner: “He used to work the Five-Star Basketball Camp back in the mid-1980’s when I was in high school. It was at Robert Morris College in Pittsburgh. He was one of the big coaches there. He was assistant at Pitt at that time, so we all loved him. We all thought he was very charismatic, very good coach. I had Pitt on my list of 11 schools to go to solely because of him. That’s how much I liked him. I ended up going to Duke and he went his way. I am not surprised at all with the level of successs he has anywhere he goes. He gets very good players. He is a very good recruiter. He gets high level players and he is able to get them to play a certain way in a short period of time because a lot of his kids leave early (for the NBA). He regroups and has another good team the next year, so I just think he is a great coach.”
Question: So even nearly 30 years ago he could connect with recruits in ways a lot of coaches couldn’t?
Laettner: “He definitely was able to do it back then. I know he can do it now. It looks from a distance it looks like he does it now with a little more yelling. I think he maybe has to do that with the freshmen maybe. He yells a lot more than I remember, but you can tell by the way his team plays that he does it the right way.”
Question: Has the charity work Calipari has done since coming to Kentucky surprised you?
Laettner: “No, not at all. Think of Dick Vitale and how much of his own personal time he gives to charities and events. A lot of things that you wouldn’t consider him working, he does even though it is his free time. He chooses to dedicate his time and it does not surprise me that Calipari does. He is just a wonderful person. That’s the way he was at Five-Star a long time ago and why he is doing great right now.”
Question: Do you ever talk to Calipari and does he still remember recruiting you?
Laettner: “He definitely remembers recruiting me. He knows that I considered Pitt just because of him. We wave when we see each other, but he’s a very busy person. I leave him to himself or whatever he has going. I think I shook hands with him at the last Dicky V. event in Sarasota (Fla.). He is a great coach.”
Question: How do you like Vitale and has he changed over the years?
Laettner: “When I first knew him and was a fan of his, I just thought he was this ultra energy guy who commentated the basketball games. After I saw him speak a few times, I realized he is a deeper person and concerned about other things than sports. That’s when I really started admiring him. I went to Duke and he was there every step of the way because every Duke game is on ESPN practically. Once I graduated we started doing charity events like the Jimmy V. fundraiser together and the first few were right there in Raleigh (N.C.). I did that with him for five or six years and then I started doing his event in Sarasota because that is where he lives and I live in Jacksonville, Fla., now.”
Question: Do you worry you are going to suddenly endear yourself to UK fans with things you are doing in conjunction with Sheppard?
Laettner: “It is fun. It all started last year when he had that Villians versus the Heroes all-star game and that was just a blast. We thought we could do something again revolving around this game and the fact Dick was here and we wanted to honor him. It all came together like the perfect storm. It is good to let fans see this side of me, but it is also good that you are relevant once in a while when they look back on it. You may not be as relevant now, but if they think about 20 years ago or it gets brought up with social media and they can see the internet video, it is easy for them to go back and reminisce. So that side is good, too.”
Question: Were the “I Still Hate Laettner” t-shirts every UK fan got your idea or Sheppard’s idea?
Laettner: “All that stuff is always Jeff’s idea. He has his printing press ready to go with that Hate Laettner.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky fans who have never forgiven Duke’s Christian Laettner for his “stomp” of Aminu Timberlake during the historic 1992 UK-Duke NCAA Tournament game have a special opportunity Tuesday to stomp Laettner.
Kentucky’s Jeff Sheppard, Laettner and ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale are hosting a fund-raising event for the V Foundation to help fight cancer in conjuction with the Kentucky-Duke game in Atlanta that is part of the State Farm Champions Classic (Michigan State and Kansas play in the first game).
“It is a reception/fundraiser honoring Dick Vitale for the work he has done for cancer research and the V Foundation,” said Sheppard, a starter on UK’s 1998 NCAA championship team that beat Duke in the South Region final. “We are having it at a historic place (Ventanas) in a ballroom that has glass from the floor to the ceiling in the ballroom. It’s in downtown Atlanta, close to the Georgia Dome, and will be a lot of fun.
“We are going to have some silent auction items. We’ll have autographed basketball along with some personal items that from Christian and myself from both schools.”
Thanks to Big Blue Nation Cares, a group that provides tickets to UK basketball and football games for special recipients, one auction item will be a special ESPN Game-Day experience when the Cats host Missouri in February.
“There will be two front row tickets and two other lower arena seats along with lunch with me leading up to the game,” Sheppard said. “We are talking to (UK coach John) Calipari about maybe getting in UK’s walk-through (practice) before the game or maybe just going to the ESPN College Game Day for an insider’s experience with Dick.”
For Kentucky fans at the reception, they will also be able to have their picture taken with Laettner in a memorable way.
“Kentucky fans can put their foot on Christian’s chest. We’ll take the photo and both of us will sign it on the spot and all proceeds will go the V Foundation,” Sheppard said.
Sheppard said the idea to do something special was Laettner’s. Sheppard then came up with the idea to involve Vitale and his charity work. Vitale quickly agreed and even promoted the event on ESPN during the UK-Maryland game Friday in Brooklyn.
“One thing just let to another and the Greater Atlanta UK Alumni Club agreed to sponsor the event,” Sheppard said. “We originally wanted Dick to speak, but he only speaks when he is not calling a game. But he quickly agreed to be part of this. Everyone has been impacted directly or indirectly by cancer. It is an honor to be a part of a special event that pays tribute to a one of a kind legend, Dick Vitale, but more importantly raises money for the V Foundation for cancer research.”
Cost is $30 person and includes admission to the event and a T-shirt. Duke fans get a T-shirt saying “I Still Love Laettner” and UK fans get a shirt saying “I Hate Laettner.” To register for the event go to www.ukalumni.net/bluesalute.
* * *
The reception runs from 4-6 p.m. at Ventanas at 275 Baker Street.
By LARRY VAUGHT
Dick Vitale said he enjoyed getting a chance to speak to the John Calipari fantasy campers during a recent trip to Lexington and was impressed with the way Calipari conducted the camp.
“Everything he does right now is done first class. I admire his generosity and the way he extends his hand to help people should be applauded,” Vitale said. “Critics always wil have something negative to say, but look at the positives. He’s been unbelievable. I’m not amazed at the recruiting job he’s done at Kentucky. I watched what he did at UMass. With what he has now, he will get his share of players.
“The thing that has impressed me and what means al ot to me is he is a friend and he hasn’t changed in terms of his passion and love for people. That’s unique and special. I had a great time at his camp.”
He said the campers “brought me to tears” with standing ovations during his talk.
Vitale had been to a Tampa fundraiser the night before for pediatric cancer and shared a story about a young girl who found out on Christmas Eve she had leukemia and a story about another girl getting ready to start her high school senior season when she learned her cancer had returned.
“It meant a lot to me to go anywhere I could raise money for pediatric cancer,” Vitale said after receiving a $25,000 check from the camp for pediatric cancer that will go toward his annual goal of raising $1 million — a goal he shattered last year by raising $2.1 million.
“I am 73 and the campers said I had the energy of a 12 year old,” Vitale laughed and said. “I take that as a big compliment. The last chapter of my life, I want to give back more. I’m in 11 hall of fames, but you can’t get in without people being good to you.
“I told the campers two things I learned from my mother and father, who had fifth-grade educations. Never believe in can’t and the second one is be good to people and they will be good to you,” Vitale said. “I cannot satisfy everybody, but I try not to hurt anybody. I get amazed when I read comments that ‘he hates Kentucky because he says they were wrong for firing Tubby (Smith).’ That is so ridiculous. I love basketball and how can you not love what transpires at Rupp Arena. Most UK fans are terrific.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Dick Vitale has not been surprised that John Calipari has been such a good coaching fit for the Kentucky basketball program.
“Not many guys can handle that job. John is one I thought could, and he has,” said Vitale.
Even Vitale’s wife, Lorraine, noticed the way Calipari got along with former players when she came to Lexington with him when he spoke at the John Calipari Fantasy Experience.
“My wife pointed out that she could see the warmth of relationships between the players and coach with the way they hugged and were shaking hands,” Vitale said. “She said that told her he built strong relationships with his players. It was so great seeing Anthony (Davis), Michael (Kidd-Gilchrist), Demarcus (Cousins), Wayne (Turner), Derek (Anderson) and all those other guys interacting with Calipari.”
However, Vitale has had to admit he was wrong about one thing.
“I didn’t believe he could win a national championship with a steady flow of personnel changes, and even told him that,” Vitale said. “It slaps in the face of everything you talk about being in rhythm and having familiarity in putting together and efficient team together. What he has done is such an unbelievable compliment to his teaching skills. It tells me he can teach, blend a unit together.
“Heck, he’s already coaching this team and the season has not even started. I am doing the first two games (on ESPN against Maryland and Duke) and he is already convincing everyone that they might be 0-2 but to look at the bottom line at the end of the year. It’s part of his psychological makeup. No way he believes in his heart they will be 0-2.”
Vitale could see Kentucky back in the Final Four, too, despite losing the top six players off last year’s national title team.
“They will be talented, but last year they had three quality players (Darius Miller, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones) that had been to the Final Four. This year’s team does not have that luxury,” Vitale said. “This year’s freshmen don’t have what last year’s group did with the veterans. (Nerlens) Noel has got to be the man right from the start. That could be a problem early, but when you are looking at what might be by the season’s end, then Kentucky could be right there.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
He’s a college basketball analyst, but he’s a college football fan. So while Dick Vitale knows Kentucky fans were bitterly disappointed with UK’s overtime loss to Western Kentucky, he was also thrilled for WKU coach Willie Taggart because he played “where I lived” in Florida.
“He has kids from Bradenton, Fla. He knows how good football is in this area,” said Vitale, who was in Lexington last Friday speaking to those attending the John Calipari Fantasy Experience. “Manatee High School is No. 1 in the USA Today football poll. He has a couple of kids from there on his team. He has some others from the same city.
“Willie is wired with the right people. He is a rising star in coaching. It’s going to be tough for Western to keep him there because he’s such a good coach and wired so well in recruiting. I know it was a big loss for Kentucky, but what a win for Willie Taggart.”
And what a blow for Kentucky coach Joker Phillips. He was asked on the Southeastern Conference telconference Wednesday why it had been so hard for UK football to sustain success.
“It’s hard to explain why. One thing we need to have is consistency in recruiting, player development. All those type things,” Phillips said. “There have been numerous coaches since I have been here and the thing we need to have is consistency.”
Would recruiting more in Florida help, something UK now seems determined to do?
“It’s not a tough place (to recruit). The thing is we haven’t focused on Florida as much,” Phillips said.
Say what? Even Vitale knows Florida is loaded with recruits, and he’s a basketball guy. The Cats might not get five-star players from Florida, but they have gone in and got players like Danny Trevathan.
“I took over three years ago (as head coach) and Florida was always an area I recurited. We are now getting into Florida a little bit more,” Phillips said. “We have got five commitments from Florida now (in the 2013 recruiting class) and will continue to recruit there. It’s heavily populated with players. It is a state we must recruit to be successful.”
Just ask Taggart, or even Vitale.
Vaught’s note: This is the update from Chris Cruz about his experiences at the John Calipari Fantasy Camp. Enjoy.
By CHRIS CRUZ
September 14 11:50 p.m. — Today seemed to last for a week. It’s amazing how much cool stuff can be packed into a single day. The bus to the Kraft Center from the hotel left at 8:30AM. We played a team coached by Darin Horn. We came out of the gates flat. We were down 33-13 at the half. My teammates made a great charge in the second half, but we lost 61-60. I stunk it up. Zero for four from the field. Nothing would go down. But we learned as a team that we are NEVER out of a game.
We headed to lunch at the Wildcat Lodge. Another great meal surrounded by new friends, UK coaches, and UK players. We headed back to the Kraft Center where we watched the 17-minute videotape that all potential recruits are shown. It documented why WE ARE KENTUCKY – and left no doubt the UK is THE DESTINATION.
Coach Cal spoke to us a while, and then Dick Vitale was introduced. He is 73 years old, but he has the energy of a 23-year old. He talked of life, of basketball, but most of all about his passion and commitment to spend every ounce of energy he has left in his body to help eliminate cancer in children. His stories tore at our hearts and inspired us. After Dickie V’s talk, Coach Cal presented him with a $25,000 check towards the cause. He is a class act.
We then went to the film room to break down our previous games. Coach John Lucas was not shy about “teaching us” what we were doing wrong. In our afternoon game, we won 78-64. I had a couple of 3-point buckets and a couple of lay-ups to help the team build a 14-point halftime lead which we never relinquished. If only I had made one of those shots earlier in the day, we might have been sitting at 3-0 instead of 2-1. Oh well, such is the life of a Division I college basketball player (LOL).
After the 2nd game, we took the bus back to the hotel, took a quick shower, and the bus then took us to Coach Cal’s house for a wonderful meal. Dino Gaudio and Paul Biancardi, ESPN analysts and former (and future) Division I basketball coaches did their version of “Selection Sunday”. To close out the night, Coach Cal auctioned off several more UK-related basketball “experiences” and inside 30 minutes raised another $128,000 for charity.
Tomorrow will be another challenging day. On the way to the bus we were each handed a framed, matted, photograph taken of us (individually) with Coach Cal, Anthony Davis (he was wearing his Olympic Gold Medal) and the 2012 National Championship trophy – and Coach Cal and AD had both signed the photo – UNBELIEVABLE. Tomorrow, the bus will leave our hotel at 7:05AM.
In the NCAA Elite Eight, we will play the team we played in our first “regular season” game – that first game yesterday was intense and we ended up winning 64-62 on a buzzer-beater. IF we win the first game tomorrow, we jump on a bus to Rupp Arena to play in the semifinals. After that, we will either play against the 1996 UK team at noon, or will we be playing for the camp championship at 1:00PM – in any case we’ll get to play on the Rupp Arena floor.
From the waist up I feel great, but my legs have pretty much given out. Out of the 50 campers here, I only count 6 that are older than I am so I’m struggling keeping up with the younger bodies that continue to fly up and down the court. But the really important thing here is that we are here together raising over $400,000 for a variety of charities. Equally important are the new relationships that are being formed amongst the camp participants. I have found, to a man, that this group of campers are incredibly gracious people who feel blessed to be able to have this experience, and that they are “givers” — they have an innate drive to better the life of those that they meet.
It has been quite an experience. And tomorrow will be another great day – out of the hotel early and it may be after midnight by the time we get back (based on everything Coach Cal has on the schedule for us tomorrow). Until next time.