Looking Good For March

TONY VANETTI: All right, Matt, looks like both teams are on an upkick right now. So how do you see the Wildcats and Cards?

MATT JONES: Well, I think where Kentucky are right now is in a good spot. They lost against Arkansas, but played well in the process. They fought back and showed a lot of heart and grit for a young team on the road. Then they played well against Tennessee. These next two games for Kentucky are home and they should win them, and then I think the real test for the team will be at LSU and at Missouri. They’ll go back to back in those games, and if you win them both you think, ‘all right, we’re where we need to be.’ If you split them, you’re okay. You just don’t want to lose them both. So I think with Kentucky, we’ll know a lot more this time next week.

VANETTI: I think the likeability factor for these Kentucky Wildcats is up. People jumped on the Harrison twins pretty hard at the beginning of the season, and now it seems like those guys are turning the corner. Do you agree with that?

JONES: Yeah. We hold these Kentucky players to such a high standard. They’re not allowed to even be normal freshman. They have to be superhuman freshman, and part of that is because they’re the whole team. But even the best freshman take a little while to get going. And in Kentucky, if you’re not a star right out of the gate, then people are like, “I don’t know about this guy.” And I think that’s what happened with the twins. Andrew is playing his best basketball of the year so far, so I like where they’re at. One of the question marks has actually been Willie Cauley Stein, one of the so-called “veterans” who’s only a sophomore.

UofL Freshman Terry Rozier.

UofL Freshman Terry Rozier.

VANETTI:Louisville is doing well. They’re settling into a lineup sort of by accident when Chris Jones gets injured and Terry Rozier takes his minutes, and they come away with their two biggest minutes at SMU and at UConn. UConn was their biggest win of the season and had to happen this week to get the season back on track. Now I think Rick is going to settle in with this lineup. If he can bring Blackshear and Chris Jones off the bench and they’re okay with that, and team chemistry is okay with that, then I think they’ll settle with this lineup.

JONES: I think that’s the key point though: “if they’re okay with that.” I think Blackshear will be. He’s done that before. But Jones at times has looked like your best player, and now I think you’re right: the team looks better without him playing. So what do you do? Kentucky has a version of that too, where Kentucky looks better when Julius Randle is not in. So what do you do if you’re coach? In Kentucky’s case, you have to play Randle as he’s too good. But with Chris Jones, you’re right. Rozier looks better. I thought the win at UConn was a a good win. The win on that floor. But SMU? Come on. You’re the defending national champs. You’re going to tell me that SMU was a good win? But the UConn win was a good one, and I agree with you, you had to have it. And now they’re on the uptick. I still think though, Tony, you would agree the upside to win a title is just not there anymore, right?

VANETTI: I think expectations have changed. By the way: I would encourage Cal to get Randle to shoot some more threes. That was a fantastic look for your offense, though.

JONES: He made it, did he not? He’s one for one!

VANETTI: Yeah!  But everyone in that stadium had to be like, “Are you kidding me? How many has he shot? Is that, like, his third attempt?”

JONES: He hasn’t had many. But I’ll tell you what: for him, maybe not three, but for Julius Randle to be the player he needs to be, he’s gotta hit some jump shots. Right now, he gets the ball down low, he gets double, triple, quadruple teamed, and if he is able to make a jump shot, then that changes how teams have to defend him. But you’re right. I think most coaches would settle for Randle shooting threes.

VANETTI: For Kentucky, they’re out-rebounding the world, but they aren’t shooting outstanding from the outside. They are shooting 31 percent from beyond the arc. Louisville is shooting about 36 percent. Louisville has taken almost twice as many threes as Kentucky has. Is that a drawback for Kentucky in the tournament?

JONES: I could be. But for Louisville, it’s a necessity to shoot those threes because they don’t have much of an inside game, so they gotta make them. If Louisville’s playing and they don’t hit threes, then they’re not going to win. They have to do that. For Kentucky, threes are a little bit more of a luxury, but I don’t think they can win a title unless they shoot threes better. They shot it pretty well against Tennessee. That was their best shooting game of the year both on the free throw line and the three point line. It’ll be interesting to see what happens now in the next two to three games.

Richard Pitino.

Richard Pitino.

VANETTI: Okay, lets move on to Richard Pitino. There were some tweets from the Minnesota fans already wondering if they will be able to keep him or not. He’s really causing a stir where former Kentucky Wildcat Tubby Smith couldn’t get it done. Now Richard’s there…

JONES: What? Wait. Slow down, just slow down with everything you’ve just said. First of all, what has he “got done”? He’s won one game. He beat Ohio State. Guess what? Everybody in the country is beating Ohio State right now. If he wins in the frozen tundra that is Minnesota, then that is the best coaching job in America.

VANETTI: Some people believe Richard can be better than his dad.

JONES: I also believe I can fly to the moon. How many people out there that are very successful have sons who end up being more successful? Okay. It almost never happens.

VANETTI: Well, it happened with George Bush.

JONES: Oh yeah, George W. Bush was a much more successful person than…just stop it. All right, find me one that’s more successful. I mean, it almost never happens. Occasionally, but almost never. Ken Griffey Jr. might have been more successful than Griffey Sr.

VANETTI: Kardashians! One of the Kardashian girls…

JONES: Thank you. All right. Anyway. The point being, Richard Pitino is Khloe Kardashian until I see him actually do something. When he does something, then we’ll talk. I’m not saying he can’t do it. He might be a good coach. But you win one game and all the Louisville fans “Oh, look out, here we go, Richard Pitino!” I mean, come on.

VANETTI: Any chance that in a couple of years he could replace Cal or Rick at their schools?

JONES: Well, I think Rick. I think the obvious thing is that clearly he would replace Rick. You know, the Pitino name is still gold in Louisville. It’s not gold in Lexington. There would be huge hurdles to him taking that job in Lexington. There are no hurdles in Louisville except for the hurdle of, you know, if you’re good enough. If he’s successful enough, he’ll take over for his dad in Louisville. The only way he wouldn’t be be is if Rick quit before Richard had proven himself. And then, you know, the Kentucky job came open after that, but I think the more likely scenario is he’ll take over for Rick.

VANETTI: When Kentucky try to outbid let’s say the NBA or another school for Cal, then how high would they go?

JONES: Oh, well they’d pay whatever. But Cal’s not gonna leave for money. Cal’s gonna leave, if he ever leaves, because he wants the challenge of doing something that he failed at, like the NBA. But money won’t be an issue. Same thing with like Alabama and Saban. If Saban leaves Alabama, it isn’t gonna be because Alabama won’t pay him.  It’s just gonna be because he wants to do something else. I do think Cal after next year will consider. Not this season, but next season. His son will graduate high school. He’ll get offered some NBA gig and he’ll strongly consider it. If he doesn’t take it, I think he stays until he retires. But after next season, that’s when we’ll figure out his future.

VANETTI: Well they’ve got big shoes to fill. All Louisville does is hire Hall of Fame coaches back-to-back.

Photos by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune