If Kentucky basketball were a psychiatric patient, the diagnosis would be simple: chronic status anxiety. Even as the Wildcats have taken their accustomed place near the top of the polls, some calamity or crisis has always been nigh. Sports talk radio in Big Blue Nation would leave you convinced that the couch of the typical Kentucky couch potato is a therapist's: How come swingman Keith Bogans is in such a horrible slump? Who's going to pick up for forward Marvin Stone, now that he has been kicked off the team, or for sometime starter J.P. Blevins until he gets back from a fractured wrist? Most urgently (better activate the 10-second delay here, Mr. Engineer): When do we tear down that banner in the rafters of Rupp Arena, the one that bears traitor Rick Pitino's name—before or after he leads @#$%&! Louisville to an NCAA championship?
Pitino took the Wildcats from the depths of NCAA probation to three Final Four appearances, including a national title, during eight years in Lexington but then bolted to the Boston Celtics in 1997 Last January, after 3� seasons of losing, he quit and signed to coach Louisville, Kentucky's archrival. Before doing so, he called Wildcats fans who might object "small-minded."
So when Pitino brought the Cardinals to Rupp on Dec. 29, the stands were filled with placards in response: BETTER SMALL-MINDED AND TRUE BLUE/THAN A TWO-FACED CAT-BIRD LIKE YOU read one. RICK'S NEXT BOOK: TREACHERY IS A CHOICE read another. (The latter was a reference to Pitino's 1997 tome Success Is a Choice, success being an option the author apparently declined to choose with the Celtics.) Other signs included CARDINAL: STATE BIRD/PITINO: STATE TURD; THEIR COACH IS STILL A CRUM; and BENEDICT ARNOLD/ JUDAS ISCARIOT/ RICK PITINO/JOHN WALKER LINDH. Yet amid this venting over all things Rick, a strange thing happened.
As fans realized that Louisville's promise pales next to Kentucky's present, the cheers for the current coach, Tubby Smith, seemed to double, even treble, in volume. The Wildcats' home-opener stumble against Western Kentucky is long forgotten, obscured by their having played No. 1 Duke to a virtual standoff on Dec. 18 before losing by three, and having easily beaten Indiana on Dec. 22 en route to a 9-2 record as of last Wednesday. Months ago, playing possum, Pitino had announced that the Cardinals would unveil black uniforms in Rupp Arena, so "when [ Kentucky] beats us by 90, it will help the mourning period." Louisville fell by only 20, but the 82-62 defeat sent the 8-2 Cardinals back onto Interstate 64 knowing it will be awhile before anyone calls Kentucky the Redgrass State.
Although Smith led the Wildcats to an NCAA title in his first season, and though he has won 77% of his games since coming to Lexington and delivered SEC titles in all but one of his four years with Kentucky, attendance has fallen slightly since the Pitino era. Now fans may say they never liked Pitino, but their complaints about Smith—the Wildcats (take your pick) "aren't in shape" or "don't play hard enough" or "aren't scoring enough," or "can't defend the three"—betray an in-spite-of-themselves nostalgia for the New Yorker Pitino, who may have been a mercenary but had a mercenary's ruthlessness that they liked. Smith couldn't possibly defend himself against all the charges and still find time to run his team, but he does point out that Kentucky led the SEC in scoring during conference games a year ago, with 79.2 points per game. "So much is made of what we're not," he says. "I don't want to know what you're against. I want to know what you're for."
The fans' griping has led Smith to flirt twice with other jobs. When the Washington Wizards came calling in the summer of 2000, Tubby turned them down, perhaps because his wife, Donna, wouldn't let him abandon their son Saul, who was a point guard for the Wildcats, before his senior season, as Tubby had done when he left Saul's brother G.G., a guard at Georgia in 1997, to go to Kentucky. Then, last May a contract adjustment—he now makes a guaranteed $1.5 million a year, about $200,000 more than Pitino does in Louisville—helped keep Smith from bolting for South Carolina. "It usually takes four or five years to be accepted anywhere," says Smith, "and that's if there are no other issues to cut into your grace period."
Part of the reason for that truncated honeymoon was Saul. The Smith family had to listen to fans pillory father and son for every mistake Saul made. "People didn't want to accept that recruiting hadn't gone well [in Smith's first couple of seasons in Lexington], and Saul didn't have a chance to play with veteran players," Tubby says. "Last year he had to play with seven freshmen. The guys I brought in two years ago"—Bogans and frontcourtmen Jules Camara and Marquis Estill—"are now making a difference." So is freshman Rashaad Carruth, a coiled, tattoo-festooned shooting guard whose shot is so low-slung and torqued with backspin that it reaches the rim in a trice. As for senior forward Tayshaun Prince, who's as laconic as Carruth is frenetic, he remains the Wildcats' finest player and a cinch to win his second straight SEC player of the year award.
On the morning of the game against Louisville, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported that Mark Barnett, a longtime Kentucky fan who's a professor of civil engineering at Auburn, had sent Pitino a letter in November with an epistolary boo to stand in for the catcall Barnett wouldn't be able to offer in person. Pitino sent Barnett's note back with a scrawled response that read in part, "For a PhD, your [sic] awfully stupid!" The point isn't so much that Pitino could use work in remedial English; it's that Smith would have let the letter go.
The difference between the two is the difference between a New York minute and a day under the sun on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where Smith grew up on a farm as one of 17 kids. After losing their home opener last season—indeed, after starting 3-5—the Wildcats won the SEC regular-season and tournament titles. This season Smith is charting much the same tortoise's course, just as his teams at Georgia and Tulsa always seemed to do. "Longevity is the key to success," he says. "My dad worked 40-some years and never missed a day. In 12 years of school I had perfect attendance. Most successful teams get that way because they go to practice and practice hard."
Smith's teams approach individual games with similar patience. Whereas Pitino extended his defense into every cranny of the court, Smith preaches "ball-line" principles, founded on covering your defensive rear. Whereas Pitino believes you can't launch too many three-pointers, Smith would just as soon see a jump hook in the low post from Prince, a dance into the lane by rapidly maturing point guard Cliff Hawkins or a gathering at the offensive glass of Bogans, Camara, Estill and guard Gerald Fitch, who through last Wednesday had helped Kentucky rack up a rebounding margin of +12.1 per game, a stat that is often a bellwether for who will wind up in the Final Four.