Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Ky. fans pine for UK, Louisville title game

By Mike Lopresti
Gannett News Service

FRANKFORT, Ky. - Stopped for gas here the other day, just to say I had been to the state capital of college basketball's Shangri-La.

If you look west from here, Louisville has won 17 in a row and is ranked No.2. Look east to Lexington and Kentucky has 13 straight victories after Tuesday's 87-67 beating of No.20 Georgia. UK is ranked No.3.

The two hottest teams in the game are 78 miles apart, in a state that expects nothing less.

"It's a good story," said Kentucky coach Tubby Smith. "If I was a writer, I'd be writing about it."

Coaches in spotlight

Louisville had gone dormant in the last days of Denny Crum. Now the Cardinals are back and Rick Pitino is king. Just like he once was king in Lexington. It is as if Robert E. Lee suddenly showed up leading the Army of the Potomac.

This is his second season. The Cardinals have caught on to his demanding ways, his uncompromising drive, his obsession for detail.

"He's taught us what winning was all about," said senior Erik Brown. "Every little thing is important. Nothing gets by him. You realize why he's won so much."

In this world, there is no room for standing still. Louisville whipped old rival Cincinnati last week in a physical struggle, with eight 3-pointers from freshman Francisco Garcia. Afterward, Pitino sounded like a man with a toothache.

"I'm not happy with any of our players right now," he grumbled.

Garcia shrugged. "We've worked hard for this. He doesn't want it to go down the drain."

Pitino requires his players have less than 10 percent body fat, so they can carry the relentless attack to the enemy. It is one reason why so many have crumbled against them. Ohio State led by 18, Indiana by 16, Saint Louis by 13. All sagged.

Kentucky went from 11 ahead to an 81-63 loss. That was the last Wildcat defeat.

Since then, Lexington has witnessed a defense of fearful intensity. No.1 Florida scored 22 in one half. Mississippi scored 20. Alabama scored 46 points. Period. Vanderbilt had four field goals in the second half.

Kentucky had hard times lately. Too many losses, injuries, troubles. Smith took the heat. He sold this team on grit, on heart, on the power of suffocation.

"It takes awhile for players to really appreciate and understand defense," he said. "That's the toughest thing in basketball."

Even the NFL helped. Smith made sure his players noticed how far defense took Tampa Bay.

So Smith needed this season. His program needed it.

"I enjoy the coaching. It's the other things," he said of last season. "I love all the players, but sometimes they do things I don't like. When that happens, you have a bad day, and I had some bad days."

"What happens, if you're secure in what you're doing ... and you know some of the things you had to overcome to survive, you feel pretty good."

It can't be easy. Not a day of it. The Kentucky faithful demand everything, forgive nothing. And Pitino is just up the road.

"You had better not worry about all that, or you wouldn't survive a year," Smith said. "Because it's going to be here. Unless you're perfect."

A high-stakes rematch?

They have a dream in the Bluegrass State. The two of them in New Orleans for the Final Four.

Pitino and Smith.

"As coaches, we both know what competition means," Smith said. "We know how to lead the battle."

Friends, they are. But hell hath no fury like a Louisville-Kentucky national championship game would be.

"That'd be 100 percent TV rating in Kentucky," Louisville star Reece Gaines said.

He is not wrong. All both teams have to do is get there.

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