Final Four: Rick Pitino, John Calipari trade praise prior to NCAA Tournament clash
UK coach John Calipari said Louisville has improved dramatically since the two teams met in December. (Clay Jackson / March 27, 2012)
“To prepare for Kentucky,¿I wish we had three weeks,” Pitino said Monday on a Final Four coaches’ teleconference. “To play them it’s not just a matter of preparing your defense to stop them, but you have to prepare your offense. They are equally good on defense. To get a young team to play that well at the defensive end all year is just a great job by their coaching staff.”
Kentucky has been made an earlly 9 1/2 point favorite over the Cardinals, a team the Wildcats beat 69-62 on Dec. 31 in Rupp Arena. However, it was 20 years ago that Pitino was coaching Kentucky when the Cats were a decided underdog against Duke in the NCAA East Regional final and lost in overtime only because of Christian Laettner’s miraculous shot.
“Nobody gave us much of a shot. I am sure that is pretty much the case now.¿Nobody gives us a shot,” Pitino said. “We believe we can win. Certainly our respect for Kentucky is off the chart. We think Kentucky was a great team when we played them in December and think they are even better now.
“We’ve got to play the type of game Villanova did against Georgetown (in the 1985 title game in Rupp Arena to when it was a big underdog and won). We can’t make a lot of mistakes against Kentucky.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari certainly is not one of those that believes Louisville cannot win after watching the Cards win four games to take the Big East Tournament and win four more in the NCAA, including a dramatic comeback victory over Florida in the West Regional final.
“They are in a nice mode right now about playing the way they have to play to win,” Calipari said.
“They are defending that way. Playing offense that way. They are a much better team. When I look at them, I just say, ‘Wow.’ They play very, very aggressive. They are doing all the things they need to do to put themselves in position to win, and they have done it.”
Calipari says Louisville’s zone defense and the adjustments the Cardinals make poses a problem for the Wildcats.
“Sometimes they throw a press at people and rattle some cages. They pressured us here and we were not ready for that kind of game. We were lucky to get out alive. They are good and are terrific defensively,” Calipari said.
Calipari says the Cardinals pose offensive challenges as well.
“They are a team that will shoot the 3 and that’s a challenge because they will shoot 20 or 25.¿If they are making them, you are going to have a long night. They are going to shoot. They do a great job in the pick-and-roll with Peyton Siva, who is an outstanding player,” Calipari said. “Their post game with Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan has really changed things. They are rebounding the ball in the zone. It’s going to be a hard game for us.”
Pitino says Louisville is “not a big 3-point shooting team. That is not our forte so to speak.” However, he does wish teams got more than 90 minutes to practice in the Super Dome to get ready for Saturday’s game.
“I wish the NCAA would give you more time so you could take your time and teach instead of rushing. I don’t know why they didn’t give us more time,”¿Pitino said.
He says “depth perception” is the problem for outside shooters in any dome.
“It is wide open space. It is something you just need to get a little practice in and then feel comfortable,”¿Pitino said.
The Louisville coach says he can tell Kentucky’s young players “have matured and got better” during the season.
“They understand defensive assignments better. They have improved as the year has gone on. They are as good as it gets in all phases,”¿Pitino said. “Our defense is predicated on who we are playing more than anything. We choreograph our defense to who we are playing and what their strengths are. It’s not a steady diet of anything (on defense.)
“We played the first game (against Kentucky) and had a little tough luck without Chane. He got his third foul (in the first half) from a technical. But they have improved and we have improved. I am sure we will both take a look at what was successful and what wasn’t.”
Calipari says there’s no way to keep his players from seeing and reading comments about how they are favored to win the national title.
“What you hope is that they understand everything. For us, we want to worry about us playing as well as we can. If that’s not good enough, we’ll deal with the results,”¿Calipari said. “That’s all I am trying to do. I am telling them not to worry about the tournament. We are playing basketball and have a game. That’s all I am worried about.
“People want to make a big deal of the rivalry. It does not matter. If you win or lose, you will feel the same whether it is a team you have never played before or a rival. Whether it is 12 miles away or a thousand miles, it does not matter at this time of year.
“It matters to fans, but we are not worried about that. We are just worried about paying a terrific basketball team and know it will be a big challenge.”
Calipari said while much is made of Kentucky’s talent level, not enough credit is given to his team for leading the nation in overall efficiency, defensive field goal percentage and blocked shots as well as being in the top 10 in rebounding margin.
“We are not just talented. They are a good team. They play together,” Calipari said. “What I¿am trying to do is get my guys to play as well as they can. Let’s play our best and have more fun and take the results from there.”