Pitino, Gillispie Still Searching for Answers Heading Into Dream Game

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) -- Rick Pitino saw the score flash across the TV screen after another shocking Kentucky loss, picked up his phone and sent Billy Gillispie a text message.

Pitino -- who knows only too well how tough things can get while working in front of the most demanding fans in college basketball -- had a little advice for the first-year Kentucky coach.

"I texted him and said, 'You're doing the right things, stay with what you believe in and in the end you'll have your success,"' said the Louisville coach, who led the Wildcats to the 1996 national title.

It was a gesture that wasn't lost on Gillispie, though he demurred when asked about his relationship with Pitino, saying only "he's been very, very kind to me since I've been here."

Pitino might be the only one. Gillispie has gotten off to a bumpy start for the Wildcats (6-6), and he knows the success Pitino is talking about will likely have to start Saturday when Kentucky hosts Louisville (9-4).

The last time the coaches met at Rupp Arena, Texas A&M knocked off Louisville in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. As strange as it sounds, almost as much could be at stake Saturday, as the Wildcats try to erase the memories of a nightmarish two-month stretch that included baffling home losses to Gardner-Webb and San Diego.

"We're not a very good team right now," Kentucky guard Derrick Jasper said.

At times the Cardinals haven't been much better.

Louisville began the season ranked in the Top 10 and with a daunting schedule designed to prepare a team with legitimate Final Four aspirations for life in the brutal Big East. But injuries to center David Padgett and forward Juan Palacios combined with inconsistent play from Louisville's talented but enigmatic sophomore class have the Cardinals still searching for a marquee nonconference win.

"The bottom line is that we just need to win a game," said Padgett, who returned from a fractured kneecap to score 13 points in a loss to Cincinnati on Tuesday. "If we were playing a conference game or just playing anybody, we just need to try to get a win right now. And I think they would say the exact same thing."

Neither team was at full strength until earlier this week. Jasper, who missed the Wildcats' first 10 games recovering from microfracture surgery on his left knee, played brilliantly in a 43-point win over Florida International on Monday.

It was the kind of confidence-building performance the Wildcats have been looking for all season. Gillispie, however, has been quick to put the damper on Jasper's return, saying the sophomore guard is hardly a savior.

"I think that if we do our job, we shouldn't be in the situation we're in right now: expecting so much out of one player," Gillispie said.

The Wildcats never led Gardner-Webb, and just when it seemed like they were starting to break out of an early season funk, they looked just as out of it in a loss to San Diego on Dec. 29.

Gillispie has been quick to accept blame for the team's poor play, but even Pitino said expectations for the Wildcats this year may have been too high.

"They've got talent, but they've lost to some people that (the fans) don't think he should lose to," Pitino said. "He's a first-year coach and he can coach. He can recruit ... It's silly to judge a person when he first comes in because you're not hiring a miracle worker. You're hiring someone that is going to get the job done in the long haul."

A Kentucky victory would match the longest winning streak by one side over the other since Pitino and the Wildcats beat Louisville four straight between 1990-93.

"We can make history," said senior Kentucky guard Ramel Bradley.

Bradley's teammates, though, have tried to downplay the game's importance, saying it doesn't matter who the Wildcats play as long as they play well.

Playing well would be a start, but Gillispie -- who spent the last few days watching old film of the rivalry trying to get a feel for its energy -- has been on the job long enough to know it isn't just another Saturday at Rupp.

"You have got to hold the game in the highest esteem," Gillispie said. "You can say 'Well it doesn't really matter or whatever' but I don't think that people that say that are being totally honest."

Maybe, but Kentucky forward Patrick Patterson admits he's almost ambivalent about facing the Cardinals.

"I don't hate them or anything," he said with a laugh.

Maybe for 40 minutes, he should pretend. It's something Pitino, who is still booed by fans at Rupp more than a decade after leaving the program for the Boston Celtics, has tried unsuccessfully to do.

While Pitino admits he just doesn't have it in him to drum up any animosity toward the school he led to three Final Fours, he knows the players and the fans feel otherwise.

"This is a bitter rivalry and I think you're going to see two teams that play really hard and want the game badly," Pitino said. "It's going to be tough."

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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