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By LARRY VAUGHT
BIRMINGHAM — Former Kentucky athletics director C.M. Newton still does consulting work and was at the Southeastern Conference Media Days. Newton, who coached at Alabama and Vanderbilt, hired Rick Pitino at UK and also knows current Kentucky coach John Calipari because his son, Martin, worked for Calipari at UK before leaving to become athletics director at Samford.
Newton shared his thoughts on Calipari and Pitino.
Question: Is it good or bad for basketball in Kentucky to have Louisville and UK both so good at the same time with coaches as dynamic as they both have?
Newton: “I think it is good. It just separates Kentucky as a state from the rest of the world. To have both of them in the state, is a tremendous bonus for the state. Cal is perfect for UK. He is the perfect coach. He understands the landscape. I think Rick is the perfect guy at this time for Louisville. I wouldn’t have thought so when Rick first came to us at Kentucky, but I think now he is the perfect guy at Louisville.”
Question: Do they recharge each other?
Newton: “Sure. I think they keep each other … honest is the wrong word … but they keep each other really involved in basketball. Rick needs a challenge and so does John. Their challenge is provided in their own state.”
Question: Have they put all the national spotlight back on basketball in Kentucky?
Newton: “Yes. I don’t think there is any question about that. Then take what has been done in the women’s programs at both universities as well as the men. Louisville goes to the Final Four and Kentucky almost did last year. It’s amazing to me the kind of run that Kentucky has had in the two sports.”
Question: When you hired Pitino over 20 years ago, did you think he would still be coaching?
Newton: “No. A matter of fact, I tried to talk him out of going to Louisville at one point. I wanted Rick to take either the Indiana or Michigan job or some job in another league. I didn’t want him in the same state because to me he is the best coach I have ever been around period, and I have been around a lot of great ones. You can name them off. But Rick to me is the consummate coach. He is smart as heck.
“Now Cal is the perfect basketball coach in the modern era as I see it with this one-and-done business. I am not sure anybody else short of him … I am willing to say no one short of him could pull this off. Particularly with the academic restrictions on there. He is a master coach, master teacher. I think the state is just very fortunate to have both of them.”
Question: From an administrative standpoint, how do you view all Calipari does from telethons to trophy tours to alumni games to fantasy camps and more?
Newton: “He is a promoter and Cal promotes UK. Yet I am an old-school AD (athletics director), so I would probably have a problem with some of that. I know with Rick I told him there would be times he would have to take no as an answer. I never will forget when Pitino came to me after we renovated Memorial Coliseum and the locker room, and it had been the same I had as a player in the last 40’s and 50’s. Then he said he needed some exercise bikes to keep from pounding legs in practice late in the season so I can get the ready for the tournament. I thought that makes sense. But the kind of exercise bike he wanted cost $4,000 to $5,000 each. They had televisions and all that stuff. Then I thought that I wished I had been smart enough to do that when I coached, and I wasn’t. That’s why I say he is in a league by himself. He is very innovative, but he was willing to take no for an answer. I have never worked with Cal, so I don’t know if he would take no for an answer or not.”
Question: Is Pitino a better coach now than 20 years ago?
Newton: “Yeah. He has gotten better. I think the Celtic experience really humbled Rick in a good way. He came back (to Louisville) and he really wanted to coach basketball. He has done a great job there.”
Question: Could last year’s NIT season do the same for Calipari?
Newton: “I think so. If you look at Kentucky last year, until Nerlens Noel got hurt, they were on track to get in the NCAA. They were a shoo-in. When he got hurt, it went down the drain. Then losing to Robert Morris hurt not only Kentucky, but it hurt the whole league. That was unfortunate, but I am sure that got Cal really going again.”
Question: Who wins the Kentucky-Louisville game this year?
Newton: “I have no idea. The one with the best players. Players win games, not coaches. But they both have really good players and coaches.”
|Nerlens Noel talks about playing Louisville|
By LARRY VAUGHT
Here is what Kentucky freshman center Nerlens Noel had to say today about Saturday’s game at Louisville.
On what he has heard about the game …
“I’ve felt for a few years back now that it’s a big rivalry in the state of Kentucky.”
On Gorgui Dieng playing for Louisville in his first game back since being injured…
“Definitely, especially since it gives them no excuse to say we didn’t have this player or that player. It’s going to be a great matchup having him play. I know him a little bit from the summer. He’s a real good kid and a real good player. I’m looking forward to the matchup.”
On Gorgui Dieng’s game being similar to his …
“I’m definitely looking forward to it. It’s going to be a good matchup for myself. I’m definitely ready for the challenge. He’s a bigger dude, about 6’10. I mean, he’s a physical player and I’m ready for the challenge.”
On going into the game as the underdog …
“It is definitely pretty fun; we’re definitely looking forward to it and ready to prove people wrong. We’ve been working real hard these past couple of weeks.”
On determining how far they’ve come …
“I think this will be a good test for us. As long as we just go out there and compete and play hard I think we’ll be good either way.”
On what they’ve learned from the Notre Dame game …
“We’ve really focused in on making sure we play hard at all times. That was our main problem then. This time around for an away game, we need to focus on playing hard and competing.”
He doesn’t really think Kentucky can win at Louisville Saturday, but Sporting News college basketball columnist Mike DeCourcy knows pregame assumptions often can be wrong.
The logic is that Louisville is just too experienced and deep for Kentucky this year, especially playing at home as it will be Saturday when it tried to end a four-game losing streak to the unranked Wildcats.
“That would be the assumption, but if the games were not played by human beings we would simply feed it all into a computer and then take those results at face value,” said DeCourcy. “Louisville has been terrific this year. Kentucky has not. Louisville responded to its adversity — Gorgui Dieng’s injury — by finding the means to beat quality teams like Charleston and Memphis on the road. Kentucky responded to its adversity — Ryan Harrow’s early absence — by struggling to find a rhythm.
“We could stop right there and let that stand, or we can play the game? Me, I’d rather see the game. I expect I know what will happen. I don’t believe Kentucky has evolved to the point where it will succeed against UL’s pressure or its zone. It’ll be intriguing to watch them try.”
It will be and whether No. 4 Louisville will be the best team UK has faced — both teams lost to No. 1 Duke — remains to be seen even though Dieng has been cleared to play after missing about a month of play.
“That’s a hard one to judge, without knowing how effective Dieng will be after a month layoff,” DeCourcy said when asked about the Cards being the best team UK has faced. “By the end of last year, Dieng was outstanding and Louisville was playing with confidence. At the end of 2005, when Calipari was coaching Memphis, the Cards were on the way to the Final Four although with less talent than this team owns.
“This team certainly has the potential to be better than 2005 or 2012 Louisville, but Calipari and Kentucky will be facing a less evolved team. Of course, he’ll be facing these Cards with a team that is very much a work in progress.”
Is DeCourcy seeing signs of progress with Kentucky and how important is this game for UK?
“That wasn’t a terrible Marshall team Kentucky blew out of Rupp Arena (last week). It wasn’t a good team, but to put a 28-point beating on the Herd was a step forward, especially with Harrow playing a significant role,” DeCourcy said. “Harrow is not what many UK fans imagined him to be, but he is starting to show he can be an effective player at this level.
“I think it’s honestly more important that he not wilt under UofL’s defensive pressure, that he play competently and effectively, than it is for UK to win. Without a victory over Louisville it’s not going to be easy for Kentucky to earn a comfortable NCAA Tournament seed given the relative weakness of the SEC. It is more important, though, for UK to be positioned to contend for the league title and take whatever seed comes with either winning it or coming close. To do that, they’re going to need Harrow to be good.”
He’s right because if the Cats do lose — and they are a decided underdog — that will be four losses already and it is going to be a difficult climb back even into the top 25. Even winning the SEC could position UK no better than maybe a six seed if it falls to Louisville.
DeCourcy still feels UK freshman Alex Poythress has more talent than any player who will play in Saturday’s game.
“But he’s still missing the drive to go with it,” DeCourcy said.
So who will be the best player on the court?
“The most accomplished player is (Louisville senior guard) Peyton Siva, the reigning Big East Tournament MVP. But the best player for either team to date has been (Louisville guard) Russ Smith, and I’m still astonished by that. I didn’t picture him as anything more than a change-of-pace player, but Rick Pitino has managed to turn him into a star,” DeCourcy said.
However, DeCourcy remains a huge fan of UK freshman center Nerlens Noel.
“I saw Noel in high school and wrote that the only reasonable comparison for the way he played was Bill Russell. I knew at the time it was a reach, and that it was unlikely Noel would one day win a dozen or so NBA championships (like Russell did with Boston). The point of a comparison is to draw a mental picture for readers of a player they haven’t seen, and that’s what Noel looks like when he guards: like a young Russell, with his long, spindly arms and legs and hunger to impact every defensive possession,” DeCourcy said.
“The only thing Noel has surprised me with is his eagerness to impact the game at both ends. I don’t view him as overwhelmingly skilled on offense, but he so wants to make a difference that he is willing and able to attack defenses just based on his speed, quickness and bounce. All that got Mason Plumlee (of Duke) in foul trouble. If Noel ever develops a reliable offensive weapon — a killer jump-hook or a 14-foot jumper — he’ll be an excellent NBA player,” DeCourcy said.
Unfortunately for Kentucky, he doesn’t have either of those tools yet and that’s why barring some kind of major surprise, the guess here is that Louisville does indeed win Saturday’s game.
Mary Jo Perino, WLEX-TV: “Louisville. They are the better team.”
Tom Leach, Leach Report and UK Radio Network: “With so many factors working in its favor, Louisville should win at this point in the season, especially with the homecourt advantage. But I’m also confident Kentucky’s talented freshmen will start to jell as a group and if that starts to happen by Saturday, the Wildcats would have a chance to win a close one.”
Ashley Scoby, vaughtsviews.com: “Louisville. They’re playing much more together than Kentucky is, and a hundred times more sound defensively. The Cards have plenty of motivation this year after what happened in April, and they’re playing at home.”
Jennifer Palumbo, WKDY-TV: “Kentucky will win because the Cats owns the series and Cal owns Pitino.”
Mark Buerger, WLAP Sunday Morning Sports: “Louisville. At home. Play better as a team. Way more experience in games like this.”
Larry Glover, Larry Glover Live: “I think the Cardinals will win the game. If UK takes care of the ball then they can take it to the wire but if they fold under the pressure then it will be a runaway win for U of L. One thing to keep an eye on, the longer UK hangs around the more the pressure builds for U of L late in the game.”
Ryan Lemond, Kentucky Sports Radio: “I am predicting a 50-49 win for U of L. I still don’t think UK has ‘found themselves’ yet, but they are getting closer. I think it’s going to be an ugly game, and the uglier the better for U of L’s chances to finally get a win over Cal’s Cats.”
Keith Taylor, Winchester Sun: “I think Louisville wins this year on the fact that they have a more experienced team and have a proven outfit. They have shown that they can win on the road and also at home, which also is a plus for the Cards. Kentucky hasn’t proven it can overcome a hostile environment and Louisville will be a much-tougher place to play than Notre Dame. I give the nod to Louisville, 75-64.”
And ESPN analyst Dick Vitale is also predicting a 77-70 Louisville victory.
Question: What are the chances both Kentucky and Louisville could make the Final Four again this year?
Mark Buerger, WLAP Sunday Morning Sports: “Somewhere close to zero. I think there’s a decent chance that neither one does. Louisville has trouble scoring from time to time. I think that could ruin them come tournament time. Kentucky just doesn’t look like any kind of threat to get that good by the end of the season. I know they didn’t look like a threat two years ago at this time, but for some reason I don’t see this team making the kind of strides that team made.”
Jennifer Palumbo, WKDY-TV: “There’s a good chance because both teams are talented and well-coached.”
Tom Leach, Leach Report and UK Radio Network: “I would think Louisville’s chances are very good–veteran team with Final Four experience, likelihood of a top two seeding. This Kentucky team will likely be in a similar position to the one two years ago, where some early setbacks left them with a number four seed so they would probably have to beat two or three higher seeds to make it to Atlanta. Logically, their prospects of making three Final Fours in a row would not be as bright–but that group two years ago should have taught us not to write this team off yet.”
Keith Taylor, Winchester Sun: “Louisville has better odds, than Kentucky. The Cardinals have a chip on their shoulder after last year’s loss to Kentucky in the Final Four and wants to prove they belong among the top four teams in the nation this year. Barring a total meltdown in the Big East, the Cardinals likely will open the NCAA Tournament at Rupp Arena and have an easier road to the Georgia Dome than UK at this point. In order to improve its chances, Kentucky needs to climb back into the Top 25 and compete flawlessly in the SEC. The room for error is a small one.”
Mary Jo Perino, WLEX-TV: “It’s so tough to get there for any team. I give Louisville the better chance. They’ve got guys who have been there before. It will be much tougher for UK to get there.”
Ryan Lemond, Kentucky Sports Radio: “ I think U of L’s Final Four run last year was kind of a fluke. They really weren’t very good at the end of the season last year (remember the 35 blowout loss to Providence), but they got ‘hot’ at the right time and made a good run. This year there is no denying that they are pretty good. With Dieng they are a Final Four caliber team, but they don’t have that outside scoring threat this year. So I am predicting Louisville will not make the Final Four.
“I also can’t predict a Final Four for UK. There are just too many red flags here at the midway point of the season for me to think they can make a Final Four run. I think they will have a great SEC run this year because the SEC is really down, and I think UK is going to only get better and better.
“If I had to lay odds in Vegas on either team reaching the Final Four, I would say: UK 55 percent and U of L 70 percent.”
Ashley Scoby, vaughtsviews.com: “Louisville has a great chance to go far in the tournament this year, barring any season-ending injuries that just seem to have happened to the Cards over the last few years. I’ll be expecting them in the Final Four. Kentucky undoubtedly has the raw talent to make it to the Final Four again, but it all depends on how Calipari continues to develop this team mentally, as well as Ryan Harrow’s continued improvement.”
Larry Glover, Larry Glover Live: “There’s a far better chance that neither team makes it than both teams making it. Strangely, these two programs , as good as they are, are rarely title worthy at the same time. They’ve been to the final four at the same time only twice since 1975.”
Next: Who will win the game?
Tom Leach, Leach Report and UK Radio Network: “ Louisville. They’re going to be favored and with such a big experience edge and the homecourt, they have more things working in their favor than at any other time in Cal’s time at Kentucky.”
Larry Glover, Larry Glover Live: “If Pitino can’t beat Calipari Saturday then U of L fans will have to wonder if he ever will. Rick is 0-4 against Cal and 2-7 in the last 9 games against Kentucky. Plus, he’s not likely to win next either with the game at Rupp and Cal poised to bring in the best class ever That means the pressure is all on the Cardinals.”
Ryan Lemond, Kentucky Sports Radio: “ No doubt it’s Louisville. They’ve lost four in a row to their arch-nemesis and arch-rival. They lost two games to them last year. They lost in the Final Four to them last season. They lost two years ago at the YUM Center to UK when it was supposed to be the big ‘christening’ of their new home. It’s Pitino’s old school. It’s Pitino’s old protege. Everything about this game puts all the pressure on U of L, but the biggest reason has to be that if Pitino doesn’t win this one, he may never beat Calipari at UK. UK is going to stay at top caliber team. U of L may never have this talent level again … ever.”
Jennifer Palumbo, WKDY-TV: “ Louisville.”
Mary Jo Perino, WLEX-TV: “Louisville, no doubt. They’ve lost to Cal three straight years and are supposed to be the much better team. Pitino can’t lose this game.”
Ashley Scoby, vaughtsviews.com: “Kentucky. Coming off a national championship and a Final Four win against Louisville, the Cats are still seen as being the top dogs and expected by UK fans to beat Louisville (always). Louisville has almost flown under the radar this year, even with their national ranking. Kentucky has much more to prove this time around, especially after they fell out of the top 25.”
Mark Buerger, WLAP Sunday Morning Sports: “I’ll say Louisville, but only because everybody expects them to win. Kentucky needs this game to prove it can beat somebody good.”
Keith Taylor, Winchester Sun: “Louisville has more to lose since the Cardinals are having what has been a banner season so far. A loss would drop Louisville in the polls, while a win for Kentucky would land the Cats back into the Top 25 going into the Southeastern Conference portion of the schedule. Kentucky hasn’t fared well on the road this year and a victory at Louisville would give the young squad confidence going into the SEC. Louisville has lost four in a row to the Wildcats, including twice last year.”
Next: What are the chances both teams could reach the Final Four again this year?