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Pitino says it will take a perfect ‘Villanova performance’ to stop Wildcats in tourney

Rick Pitino, who coached Kentucky to a National Championship in 1996, thinks opponents will have a hard time stopping the Wildcats this year (UofL Athletics Photo)

Rick Pitino, who coached Kentucky to a National Championship in 1996, thinks opponents will have a hard time stopping the Wildcats this year (UofL Athletics Photo)


By Russ Brown
KyForward correspondent


LOUISVILLE–So who has the best chance among teams in the NCAA Tournament field to derail Kentucky’s charge toward 40-0 and its second national championship in four years? Notre Dame? Wisconsin? Duke? Villanova? None of the above?

The Badgers get one expert’s vote. But not unless they’re perfect.

“What’s it going to take to beat them, who can beat them?” asked Louisville coach and former UK coach Rick Pitino. “Well, there’s a lot of opinion on that. My own personal opinion is Wisconsin is the closest team because they have the size and shooting ability, and their style of play.”

Not that Pitino gives Wisconsin, or anybody else, much of a shot at the Wildcats. He said it will take an extraordinary performance by a UK opponent, coupled with a well-below-par showing by the Cats. Something similar to Villanova’s upset of heavily-favored Georgetown in the 1985 title game in Rupp Arena.

“I think it’s going to take a Villanova performance to beat them,” Pitino said. “And Kentucky is going to have to not play well. Villanova that night was almost perfect, and that’s what it’s going to take.

“Kentucky has not played well and not shot great percentages and still won because of their offensive rebounds and their defense and their post game. They don’t have a weakness. Their post game is awesome, their bench is awesome.

“They’re very well-drilled at every fundamental. So it’s going to take a team that plays a perfect game to beat them. And that’s what it took to beat Georgetown that year.”

Pitino doesn’t agree that Notre Dame is one of the clubs that could knock off UK. The Irish have gotten attention in that regard because of their shooting and scoring ability. But they would be at a major size disadvantage.

“Somebody said to me, Notre Dame is an ideal matchup for Kentucky,” Pitino said. “I said, that’s the worst matchup for Notre Dame, so everybody has a difference of opinion in terms of analyzing matchups.”

Some have suggested that Kentucky would have been better off entering the NCAA Tournament with a loss to ease the pressure of a perfect record. Pitino orchestrated a defeat for his 1996 UK national championship team by benching Antoine Walker in the SEC title game against Mississippi State, which snapped a 27-game Wildcat winning streak with an 84-73 victory.

“I didn’t intentionally lose, but benching Antoine Walker, I was hoping we would have some adversity at that point,” Pitino said. “I was pleased at that point in time because we were just beating the hell out of people by so many points that we needed to stay hungry and humble, so that was good for us. And then we went on and played great from that point on.”

But he doesn’t think a similar move by UK coach John Calipari would have been a good thing.

“I think what John has done is exactly what he should have done,” Pitino said. “You don’t want to lose with that type of team because you have a chance at history, to do something nobody has ever done in the game.”

‘I hate Laettner’

Pitino said he declined an invitation to be interviewed for ESPN’s recent 30 for 30 series documentary “I Hate Christian Laettner,” which was broadcast Sunday night.

“Because I don’t hate Christian Laettner,” he said. “I don’t hate the guy. I’ve never hated him. I thought he was one of the greatest college basketball players of all time. I will say, I hate the fans that keep reminding me of that moment (laughs).”

Before Laettner hit the most famous game-winning shot of the NCAA tournament to beat UK 104-103 in the 1992 East Regional final, he intentionally stepped on Kentucky’s Aminu Timberlake’s chest as what he later said was payback for an incident earlier in the game.

The incident made Kentucky fans and players irate, though Timberlake laughed it off, and Laettner wasn’t ejected.

“It was not a very vicious stomp on his stomach or his chest,” Laettner said on the 30 for 30 special. “I think the refs made the right call. It wasn’t very vicious on my end, it didn’t have intent to harm so I think they made the right call. They did punish me, they did punish my team. Kentucky got some free points and the ball so I think they did the right thing. I don’t know if it was someone else or if it had been in today’s game if I would have been kicked out.”

Pitino knows.

“He would have been thrown out of the game today because they would have gone to the monitor,” Pitino said.

Russ Brown has covered University of Louisville athletics for 31 years, including 15 for The Courier-Journal in Louisville. He is senior writer/editor for the Louisville SportsReport, which he helped found, and also writes for Cardinalsports.com.

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