C-J vault: Elite Eight 2005

While we count down the last few hours to the University of Kentucky’s appearance in the 2010 Elite Eight against West Virginia in Syracuse, N.Y., I’m taking a look back at some Elite Eight eves past in The Courier-Journal archives with both UK and the University of Louisville.

Time for Tubby to answer final question

BY RICK BOZICH, March 27, 2005, Page C-1

AUSTIN, Texas — Nobody can question Tubby Smith’s ability to squash the Southeastern Conference, race atop the polls and earn a top NCAA Tournament seed. But this is University of Kentucky basketball. Some questions always nag.Time for Tubby to answer that final question

And for Smith, this one always has simmered: He won a national title with Rick Pitino’s players in 1998. Can he find another Final Four with a 110percent Built-By-Tubby team?

Needless nit? Maybe. But will it be one story line when UK plays Michigan State in the Austin Regional final today at the Erwin Center? You bet, considering Smith has moved to this place in the bracket and stalled twice since 1999.

He has survived and advanced over a million arched eyebrows in eight seasons at UK. This is the final unanswered question, one stirred by defeats that top-seeded UK teams endured against Marquette and Alabama Birmingham the last two years.

Beating Michigan State, a program always sniffing the Final Four, would stop those questions. This is the day Smith can take a team that he recruited, developed and motivated to St. Louis for a Final Four that already includes Pitino and Louisville.

Tubby’s team

San Antonio in 1998 was unexpected. This would be divine. This is a thoroughly overhauled team that lacks a sure pro star and starts two freshmen. This is Tubby’s kind of team: deep, selfless and relentless.

Tubby has done a lot of great coaching jobs,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “This is one of his best.”

Don’t argue that the Pitino background noise is not in the air. I hear it. You hear it. Smith’s friends certainly hear it, especially after what Pitino did yesterday in Albuquerque.

“Kentucky fans don’t appreciate what a good coach Tubby is,” said Kenny Williamson, a friend of Smith’s who scouts for the Charlotte Bobcats. “They won’t appreciate him until he’s gone.

“I’ve had people tell me that I don’t understand the way people feel about Tubby. Believe me, I understand. I’ve been in Rupp Arena (scouting games). I’ve heard the grumbling and boos. I know what they say.”

I know what they say, too. Tubby’s preferred style of basketball, constructed on his love of defense, depth and post play, will never be as entertaining as the way Pitino coaches the game.

It’s a matter of taste. Prada or Vuitton? Pitino or Smith? There is no right or wrong answer – as long as a coach is getting to the Final Four on a regular basis.

Raging expectations

“Kentucky fans expect the Final Four every year,” said UK equipment manager Bill Keightley. “Winning determines their popularity.”

Pitino certainly had his critics in his first six seasons at UK. Not as many as Smith, but they were there, especially after the Wildcats lost in the 1993 Final Four and stalled in the Elite Eight in 1995. Something about his full-court style of play not being a style that could be trusted to win a national title. That nonsense stopped after UK won the 1996 national title.

For Smith, the Pitino comparisons have always percolated – even after 1998.

Some still suggested Kentucky would have been better served if former athletic director C.M. Newton had hired Billy Donovan instead of Smith. Eight straight victories over Florida and Donovan blew up that line of questioning.

When Pitino took the UofL job in 2001, there was considerable talk that he would squeeze Smith in the recruiting tugs-of-war. Louisville recruited Antwain Barbour, Patrick Sparks and Rajon Rondo, but Smith wound up with all three. He has split four games with Pitino.

Considering Smith’s record – five SEC regular-season titles, five SEC Tournament titles, stacks of Coach of the Year awards – there isn’t much left to question.

Except this: Can he get a 110percent Built-By-Tubby team to the Final Four?


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