In Lexington, Ky., they held the most perfunctory of Senior Day festivities. The honorees were a perma-sub who played 17 minutes all season (and never got off the bench Saturday) and a rental player on a one-year layover at Kentucky. There wasn’t a wet eye in the house.
Seventy-five miles down Interstate 64 and four hours later, in Louisville, Ky., they had a Senior Day love-in. Louisville coach Rick Pitino had to cease his pregame remarks about guard Peyton Siva to avoid crying. Siva was relieved Pitino stopped, because he was tearing up, too. After the game, about 30 of Siva’s Samoan relatives bestowed leis on all the Cardinals, and Pitino wore two of them to his postgame press conference.
Two rival programs, built in distinctly different ways and having distinctly different seasons. One March Saturday, in a state where they care more than anywhere else. The Bluegrass Double was a study in contrast.
Kentucky was in desperation mode, rallying to beat No. 11 Florida 61-57 in a must-win game that may or may not secure one of the very last spots in the 68-team NCAA tournament. The emotion came after the game, not before it – and the prevailing emotion among 24,294 fans in Rupp Arena was giddy relief. Even a season full of frustration is tolerable as long as there is hope, and hope now remains.
“They swam like heck,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari of his players, after declaring Friday that his team must either learn to swim or drown right here and now.
Eighth-ranked Louisville was in termination mode, beating down No. 24 Notre Dame 73-57 to further the quest for a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed. After a five-overtime loss to the Fighting Irish a month ago, Pitino called for a seven-game winning streak to end the regular season and this finished it. The Cardinals’ confidence could scarcely be contained in the 22,000-seat Yum! Center.
“We are going in [to the postseason] with a high, going in with everyone feeling good about themselves,” Pitino said.
For the Wildcats, this was finally a feel-good moment in a miserable season. They began the year ranked third in the nation and now are reduced to sweating out what happens to the likes of Middle Tennessee, Boise State and LaSalle – all of whom could impact Kentucky’s place in the NCAA bubble hierarchy. With a 4-3 record since the injury to Nerlens Noel – undefeated at home, winless away – the 'Cats may still need a victory Friday in the Southeastern Conference tournament quarterfinals to feel optimistic about their inclusion in the Big Dance.
But even that uncertainty is far more palatable after coming back from the brink against the Gators. Kentucky pitched a gritty shutout over the final 7:35, erasing a seven-point deficit and scoring the game’s final 11 points to pull out the victory. Rupp Arena was deafening down the stretch.
“The last seven minutes they swam like heck,” Calipari said.
For the Cardinals, this was the continuation of a roll that began a year ago and has only wavered for a single week, when they lost three straight in late January. From the start of the 2011-12 Big East tournament until now, Louisville is 34-6, having reached the Final Four last year and looking like a team with all the parts to do it again this year – if not win it all.
At a time of year when most coaches are shortening their rotations, Pitino can play eight or nine men with confidence. And the offensive options seem to be expanding instead of shrinking. Dieng, who was honored Saturday because of the likelihood he will go pro, is blossoming right on time: he had 20 points, 11 rebounds, five blocks and three steals against Notre Dame, and is averaging 15 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and 2.2 steals over the past five games.
“When he is scoring like that, it is a whole other gear for them,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “They have had their offensive droughts and times when they can’t score, but he looked like a pro tonight. …”
The methodology of coaches John Calipari and Rick Pitino is markedly different. Both ways are highly successful – but this year, at least as of this moment, Pitino has the upper hand. It's interesting, since a popular storyline in the commonwealth for the past three years was that Calipari had cornered the market on modern college basketball, while Pitino was struggling to stay relevant in the shadow of his bitter adversary.
Relying more on player development and program depth – players like Siva and juniors Gorgui Dieng and Russ Smith – Pitino’s Louisville team is assured of a fifth top-four NCAA seed in the last six years and a seventh straight NCAA bid. It may collar a second No. 1 seed in the last five years. Still, what the Cardinals have not done under Pitino is hit the highest note and won a title.
Relying on recruiting elite talent for the short haul, Calipari’s Kentucky team is experiencing the dark side of one-and-done – a team where the freshmen are not quite ready to conquer the world, and there is insufficient depth to compensate for a major injury. Calipari’s first three seasons at UK were raging successes: two No. 1 seeds, an elite eight, two Final Fours, one national title. Next season may be another one, with an ungodly stockpile of new talent ready to move in. But in between, this is what happens when you fall off the one-and-done wire and there is no safety net.
The past three Kentucky teams all had at least one veteran holdover from the reviled Billy Gillispie Era to help steady the youngsters when the seas got choppy. First it was Patrick Patterson in 2010, then it was Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins 2011, then it was Darius Miller in 2012. Those seasons are nowhere near as successful without key plays at key times from older guys.
This year, it’s been a disorienting walk through the wilderness game after game in search of an on-court leader. Kentucky found a reservoir of resolve at desperation time Saturday, but was aided by a veteran Gators team that is simply terrible in close, late-game situations.
Florida is 0-5 in games decided by single digits. It coughed up a six-point lead late at Arizona, a 10-point lead in the final 11 minutes at Missouri and now a seven-point lead at Kentucky. That goes with collapses in elimination games last year (up 11 with eight minutes left against Louisville in the regional final) and in 2011 (up nine with eight minutes left against Butler in the regional final). That persistent lack of clutch makes it hard to embrace the Gators as a Final Four contender.
The league-wide inability to win on the road also makes the SEC tournament an intriguing hot mess. You can’t trust anyone to win three or four (and certainly not five) straight in Nashville, but someone is going to.
Meanwhile, Louisville heads to a farewell Big East donnybrook as the co-favorite with Georgetown. Then it is time to play for keeps.
“I know we’re not better than 25 teams in the country,” Pitino said. “But I also know we can beat all 25.”
Relief in Lexington, where a turbulent transition season isn’t in the shredder yet. Joy in Louisville, where the highest of aspirations are more attainable by the day.
Let tournament basketball begin.
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