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.
Chris Smith: ‘We want to play Kentucky for revenge’
By MICHAEL SINGER
Special to ZAGSBLOGPHOENIX — With one more win by Kentucky on Sunday, the college basketball world — and the entire world of sports – will get what everyone is waiting for.
Kentucky versus Louisville.
Calipari versus Pitino.
Louisville’s stunning 11-point comeback for a 72-68 victory over Florida Saturday set the stage for a potential clash in New Orleans between two programs whose animosity for one another is palpable.
“We want to play Kentucky for revenge,” former St. Benedict’s Prep guard Chris Smith, referring to his team’s 69-62 loss at Kentucky on New Year’s Eve, told CBSSports.com’s Dennis Dodd.
“And they have, what, six or seven pros on their team? If you want to be a pro you’ve got to beat a pro. Everybody cares, but they’re not going to say it. I’m a senior, and I’m going to say it. If I eat my words, I eat my words, but at the end of the day I want to play Kentucky.”
That is, as long as long as the Wildcats holds up their end of the bargain. No. 1 overall seed Kentucky will meet No. 3 Baylor on Sunday in Atlanta for the right to cut down the nets in the South Regional.
New York guard Russ Smith, who spurred the Cardinals’ 18-3 run over the final eight minutes against Florida, took a less ambitious stab at the possibility of facing Kentucky. “They gotta get past Baylor first and Baylor has to get past Kentucky. If it happens, it’s a great game for the fans, but at the end of the day, we know what we’re in New Orleans for.”
Russ Smith later added, “I want Kentucky because of the in-state rivalry, but I want Baylor because they got infra-green uniforms.”
Louisville Coach Rick Pitino, who led the Wildcats to an NCAA championship in 1996, was adamant about distinguishing Louisville’s identity from that of his former school.
“I keep trying to tell our fans, ‘We’re not Kentucky. We have no desire to be Kentucky.’ But there’s so much petty jealousies,” Pitino said. “I don’t get into these petty things. To me, it’s nonsense.”
Pitino will be playing with house money in New Orleans, while Kentucky coach John Calipari would face all the pressure.
Pitino already has his ring. Calipari is still seeking his first and everyone expects him to do it this year.
Were Calipari to lose to Pitino on the stage of the Final Four, it would be arguably the most devastating loss of his career.
And he’s already lost a national championship game and had two Final Fours on his watch wiped from the books.
Conversely, if Calipari were to beat Pitino and then go on to win the national title, it’s not that hard to imagine an exit scenario where he returns to the NBA, possibly to coach the Knicks.
As the head coach of Kentucky, Pitino was 6-3 against Louisville but is just 4-7 against the Wildcats since taking over as the Cardinals’ head coach in 2001.
Pitino has lost six of the last eight vs. the Wildcats, including a seven-point defeat to Calipari’s club on New Year’s Eve at Rupp Arena.
Russ Smith exploded for 30 points off the bench in that game, notching the highest total ever for a Louisville player in the series but Kentucky’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had 24 points and 19 rebounds to lead the then-No. 3 Wildcats over Louisville.
Even soft-spoken forward Kyle Kuric, who had just two points in 38 minutes in the first meeting, was eager to see the rivalry come full circle.
“It’s kinda been like a redemption road so far and it all lines up perfect, whoever we play, it’ll be a great game,” Kuric said.
It all lines up perfectly, as long as Kentucky doesn’t botch this opportunity.
Peyton Siva’s father, cloaked in a customized “Siva” Louisville jersey, may have said it best following his son’s improbable victory.
“It’s gonna erupt in Kentucky and Louisville. It’s gonna erupt.”
Photo: John Clay blog
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, 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.