Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
NEW ORLEANS — Rick Pitino couldn’t beat John Calipari in the national semifinals, so he’s now jumped up on the Kentucky bandwagon.
When the longtime rivals shook hands following Kentucky’s 69-61 victory over Louisville here at the Mercedes-Benz SuperDome, Pitino told Calipari: “I’ll be pulling for you. Bring the trophy home to Kentucky.”
Yes, the two men who have traded various barbs and shots across a decade dating to their Conference USA days are warm and fuzzy now that Kentucky did what just about everyone expected and held serve, albeit in tougher fashion than many imagined going in.
“I think that’s neat,” Calipari said of Pitino’s post-game comments. “When I was at UMass, I can remember hugging him and telling him, ‘I’m happy for you and I really want you to win the national title.’ He did the same to me tonight, so I think it’s kind of neat.”
With one more win Monday night against either Ohio State or Kansas, Calipari can finally get that huge gorilla off his back and win his first ring.
He can join Pitino among the ranks of coaches with an NCAA championship ring, and can do it, like Pitino did, at Kentucky, one of the most storied programs in the history of the sport.
“They have a great basketball team, one that I know John is really proud of,” Pitino said. “To tell you the truth, I haven’t always liked some of the Kentucky teams. I’m not going to lie to you. But I really like this team a lot because of their attitude and the way they play.
“I’ll certainly be rooting for them hard to bring the trophy back to Kentucky because I’m really impressed with them, not only as basketball players, they way they carry themselves, their attitude. They’re a great group of guys, doing a tremendous job.
“Louisville will be rooting for Kentucky, which doesn’t happen very often, to bring home that trophy to the state.”
Calipari said his team will have to play better on Monday and they certainly will, considering that this game was tied at 49 with about nine minutes left before Louisville went into an offensive funk and failed to make a field goal for more than six minutes.
Led by Anthony Davis, who played brilliantly here with 18 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks, Kentucky has been the favorite to cut down the nets for much, if not all, of this season.
And they will be the favorites again Monday night, and either Ohio State or Kansas will have to play a special game to beat the Wildcats.
“We did not play at our best tonight,” Calipari said. “We played good, but that wasn’t our best. You know what, so maybe Monday is our best.”
“Are they beatable?” Pitino asked. “No question about it because Vanderbilt did it. But you’re going to have to play great offense, great defense, and you got to bring your A-plus game and they have to have a B game.
“That’s what has to happen. They’re a great ballclub.”
And Pitino’s nose didn’t even grow when he said he’d be rooting hard for Kentucky on Monday night.
Photo: Getty Images
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Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.