Pin loss on Pitino as Cats devour soft-serve Cards
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The sign was written on cardboard in black marker, and after the game it was deposited in the front row of Section 19 of Rupp Arena. It inartistically but emphatically got across the key point of Kentucky 73, Louisville 61:
"Akron, Chicago State, Perry View A&M, Middle Tennessee. who wouldn't be undefeated???"
Errors aside, the sign speaks the bottom-line truth about Louisville's 6-0 basketball team heading into this cauldron of emotion. Thanks to a Charmin-soft schedule bereft of road games and a lineup littered with inexperience, the fourth-ranked (and wholly overrated) Cards were not ready for what a desperate Kentucky team and 24,000 fans threw at them.
Not even close.
As another taunting fan at courtside put it to the Cardinals as they returned to the floor after a first-half TV timeout: "Are [the Wildcats] a little better than Chicago State? Just a little better?"
Actually, when Rajon Rondo is at his alpha-male best with the ball and Tubby Smith's sketchy big men are showing some assertiveness, the Wildcats are light years better than Chicago State. Not coincidentally, Chicago State was Louisville's highest-ranked RPI opponent until Saturday, at No. 167.
That's why, unless you view the world through Cardinal-red glasses or you're a UK fan absolutely seized by panic after consecutive Saturday losses to North Carolina and Indiana, you saw this coming. Rick Pitino normally makes all the right moves, but he set his team up to fail in the annual Armageddon game in Rupp against its archrival.
You've got to play somebody before playing this game. And you've got to play somewhere less hospitable than Freedom Hall, too.
Way back on Oct. 15, I asked Pitino whether this schedule would prepare this team for this game.
"Probably not," he admitted. But that's easier to accept in theory in mid-October than it is to swallow in reality in mid-December.
"We played like an immature team on the road," Pitino said after watching his Cards never lead and trail by as many as 23 in the second half. "It's not the competition. We've played like an inexperienced basketball team, but we should be. That's who we are."
Pitino didn't like his defense, which gave up 48 percent shooting. He didn't like his offense, which missed 12 of its first 13 shots. He could not have been enamored with the play of his freshmen, who combined to shoot 3-for-21 from the field. And he certainly didn't like the fact that his team fell behind 8-0, never led and trailed by double digits for 27½ of the game's 40 minutes.
"We did as bad a job as we have all year running our offense," Pitino said. "We panicked, we shot quickly, we took bad shots. I think it mushrooms and goes bad quickly."
Nobody knows better than the Cats how quickly it can go bad. Living in the land of wild mood swings, you would have thought after the Indiana loss that Christmas had been canceled in the commonwealth.
They lost to the Hoosiers last Saturday by 26, the worst Kentucky defeat in 16 years. Fans were losing their minds over a 6-3 start, some of them rushing to the Internet and talk radio to rip Tubby.
Fortunately for the 'Cats, they climbed into their own insular bubble. Between a week of finals and a week of practice, they rode out the storm and regrouped.
After busing home to Lexington from the Indiana debacle, the immediate order of business was a team meeting. Then, after laying down the law, Smith put on his happy face.
"Coach was positive," Rondo said, "and we needed that."
"You know how you guys can get The Look?" forward Sheray Thomas said to media members, who are quite familiar with Smith's withering stare when angered. "Everybody has seen The Look. He wasn't giving those looks this week. He was clapping his hands, being positive. He was even out there doing the three-man weave with us."
Thomas did not give a glowing review of Smith's three-man weave performance, but that's not where the coach is at his best anyway. His most important work of the week was in a 45-minute, one-on-one Wednesday meeting with Rondo.
The stellar sophomore point guard let his frustration spill out after the Indiana loss, saying the 'Cats had "ego problems" and lacked leadership. Smith told Rondo in that meeting that he should do more to fill that leadership void.
"Coach told me he needed me to step up, be a motivator in practice," Rondo said.
That carried over magnificently to the game. Smith opted to start with Rondo at the off guard, letting Patrick Sparks play the point, and that helped free Rondo for his quick-strike drives to the basket.
Rondo in the paint is as inevitable as daybreak. When he's being assertive, even defenders who sag off the streaky shooter cannot deny him entry to the lane. That led him to a career-high 25 points and seven assists.
"Very few players can get exactly where they want to go, regardless of what defense you play," Pitino said. "He's one of them. He's one of the top five guards in America."
At one sublime point Saturday, Rondo had made every shot he took: Three from two-point range, one from 3-point range and all three free throws. The shooting he did two hours before the game -- Rondo hoisted perimeter jumpers until he made 115 -- paid off, especially when he stepped into an open 3-pointer that helped break open the game in the first half. It was the first 3 he'd made since Nov. 25.
And at the end of the game Rondo helped hold off a Louisville rally by consistently making his free throws. He finished 10-of-15 from the line.
"When he's hitting his free throws, he's tough," Pitino said, "because he gets to the rim."
This was an especially happy result for Rondo. Not only was he the star of the show, but he also beat his hometown school -- the school he grew up wanting to play for.
"I can go home [for Christmas] without getting a lot of grief," Rondo said. "If we had lost, I'd have been going home and staying in the house, ducking. Now I can go outside."
Pitino might be the one who needs to stay indoors. His infatuation with Sebastian Telfair led him to hold off on taking a commitment from Rondo. When Telfair turned pro instead of coming to school, Pitino wound up with neither.
But this was even worse for Planet Red: Not only is Rondo not wearing a Louisville uniform, but he's also dressed in blue. And now he's 2-0 against the Cards.
Pitino has had many great moments in this building, coaching from both the home and visiting benches. This was not one of them. His soft schedule set up the Cardinals to be blown out, and the biggest blows were dealt by the point guard he could have had.
At least Louisville has Middle Tennessee to get well on Tuesday.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.