Rick Pitino often talks wistfully about his time as the head coach at Kentucky as Camelot.
He mentions how he left Camelot too early in order to pursue greener pastures as the head coach of the Boston Celtics.
Now the head coach at Louisville, Pitino can never return to Camelot.
By his own admission, the Louisville fan base is not the same as the Kentucky fan base. Kentucky fans can “infiltrate” games at the KFC Yum! Center, but Louisville fans cannot do the same at Kentucky’s Rupp Arena.
Still, with No. 4 Louisville’s 80-77 victory over Kentucky Saturday afternoon before a nationally televised audience, Pitino and his charges took a step toward something special.
“Quite frankly, I don’t think we’re anywhere near our potential,” Pitino said post-game.
While Pitino cannot recreate Camelot at Louisville, he has all the talent necessary to win another national championship to follow his 1996 crown at Kentucky.
Louisville has an experienced, veteran point guard in Peyton Siva (19 points). A shot-blocking, defensive-oriented big man in Gorgui Dieng (6 points, 7 rebounds, 2 blocks). An explosive, mercurial off guard in New York’s Russ Smith (21 points). A scoring big man in Chane Behanan (20 points, 7 rebounds). And a host of skilled role players in Luke Hancock, Wayne Blackshear, Kevin Ware and Montrezl Harrell.
“I thought this was the first year that we had as much talent as them,” Pitino said of Kentucky. “And I quite frankly thought we had more talent than them because our talent is more experienced.”
He added that in Smith and Siva, he had “one of the premier backcourts in the country,” and it’s hard to argue with that.
In a year with no dominant college basketball team — this isn’t Kentucky 2012 with six NBA draft picks — Louisville stands as good a chance as anyone of cutting down the nets in Atlanta in April.
Sure, Duke, Michigan, Arizona, Indiana, Kansas and Syracuse are all in the mix. There is no clear-cut favorite like there was a year ago when Kentucky beat Louisville in the Final Four and then Kansas in the national championship game to cut down the nets for John Calipari for the first time.
“I marvel at what he [Calipari] does with young players because two weeks ago I didn’t think they were a very good basketball team and now they’re a hell of basketball team,” Pitino said of Calipari’s latest group of Fab Frosh that includes Archie Goodwin, Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress.
A year after that Final Four loss, Pitino used an experienced, veteran team to exact some measure of revenge on his arch-rival Calipari, who has taken one-and-done exploits to a new level. And Pitino has served notice going forward that Louisville — not Kentucky — is the top dog in the Bluegrass State.
“Last year’s team, we did it with solely defense,” Pitino said. “We’ve got much more offensive firepower than last year. We did it all with defense last year.”
And what if Louisville were to win it all this year?
It would mark another championship for the beleaguered Big East, which has won four titles since 1999 — three by Jim Calhoun and UConn (1999, 2004, 2011) and one by Jim Boeheim and Syracuse (2003).
Sure, Louisville is on its way out of the Big East, headed to the ACC in 2014. But such a title would count on the Big East’s ledger.
It would also give Pitino rings at both Kentucky and Louisville, a rare coaching feat indeed.
And while that’s not quite Camelot. It would be something special indeed.