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Louisville Coach Rick Pitino: Kentucky Is In A Class By Themselves

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At one point this season, Rick Pitino had himself a top-five team. The Louisville Cardinals opened the season with a 12-0 run, but they’re 9-7 since then, including a loss at Cincinnati last night. All of those games have come in Big East play except a 69-62 loss to Kentucky on New Year’s Eve. Kentucky, of course, is the clear No. 1 in the polls right now, and it turns out Rick Pitino believes with some certainty that they belong there easily. Pitino says the Wildcats are in a class of their own, with about 19 teams log-jammed behind them. Rick Pitino joined ESPN Radio with Scott Van Pelt and Ryen Russillo to discuss the identity of his team, the Cardinals’ success on the road, if he ever believed he had a top-four team on his hands, Kentucky’s dominance, winning in the NCAA tournament and the future of the Big East.

Have you gotten a sense at this point as to the identity of your team?:

“I think so. Sometimes, especially in the Big East — you’ve seen it with Seton Hall, you’ve seen it with West Virginia, you see it with us — sometimes the schedule dictates when you have your streaks and when you have your lulls. If you’re on the road in the Big East and you have a stretch where you play three of four on the road, sometimes you’ll go the other way, then you’ll get home and have a streak.”

On his team’s recent success on the road:

“It was the same thing last year. Since we joined the Big East, the one distinction that we’ve had, we’re the number one road team in the Big East since we joined the league. We’ve won more road games than any other Big East team. I can’t tell you why. I don’t really know why.”

You guys were 12-0 at one point and ranked No. 4. Did you see this team as a No. 4 team in the nation?:

“No, I didn’t, because of a couple factors. We were not healthy. We were winning certainly, but when you looked at how we were winning, we beat Vanderbilt in overtime and we blew out Long Beach State, which they were very hot at the team and very good. … We played some tough teams, but we just executed and did some good things. But I never looked at us as a top-four team so far this year.”

On Kentucky being head and shoulders above the field:

“I think Kentucky is in a class by themselves. Not only are they extremely talented, but they’re well-drilled on defense and the only way I see Kentucky going down is if you somehow do what we did in the first half and get Anthony Davis in foul trouble. Then they’re a very good basketball team … when he’s on the bench. … The rest of the teams, I think 2 through 20, I think we’re all in the same boat. We may not have been three or four, but I don’t know if we’re that much behind Kansas or that much behind Baylor.”

What’s the secret to why you’ve been able to have successful NCAA tournament runs at multiple places?:

“When we’ve played well, I always felt that we were risk-takers. We tried to pick up the tempo rather than slow down the tempo. We tried to gamble a little bit more in terms of changing our defenses. Most people coach in the tournament as if they’re getting ready for social security. Everybody plays it close to the vest. They’re concerned about not making a mistake. I think sometimes your players get a little uptight from that philosophy, so we try to go the other way at times when we’ve been healthy.”

Do you think the Big East will survive?:

“I think it’ll survive and I think it’ll be better in football, because let’s face it, Pitt and Syracuse, they have great tradition in football, but they have not been great the last eight to 10 years. Now you’re bringing in Houston, SMU, San Diego State, Boise State — programs that are now [better] programs in football. Where we get hurt is obviously you lose Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia [in basketball]. … [Syracuse] is the team that epitomizes the Big East. When you go to the Garden in the Big East tournament, Syracuse buys up all the tickets. Their fans are metropolitan-area people, so it’s mind-boggling to me how that happened. That being said, we took a great step in getting Memphis. … I’ve been pushing, obviously … is Temple. … To me, Temple is ideal.”

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