MATT JONES: So Tony â€“ how are you feeling about Saturdayâ€™s game? Was it emotional for you to say goodbye to maybe one of the best players Louisvilleâ€™s had in 20 years?
TONY VANETTI: You know, guys like you and I are always looking at things differently than most people. We are still fans. Thatâ€™s what you and I do on the air – we’re fans. And yes, it is a little emotional when you see guys like Russ Smith that youâ€™ve seen basically become who he is in the Louisville uniform: become the man that he is in the Louisville uniform over the last four years. A two-star kid from Brooklyn that no one knew – and, matter of fact, we were made fun of when the recruiting class was announced at the luncheon a couple of years ago â€“ and we were all wondering where this program was going.
JONES: You know, itâ€™s funny, but I like him. He is one of the few guys that have been on UofL that I like. You know I try to dislike all of your players, but I like him. I like to see him play with that confidence. In fact, his coming-out party was against UK his sophomore year, when even though Kentucky won, he kept that game close against the 2012 National Title holders. So I really liked him. Hereâ€™s an interesting thing to think about. On this Fox Sports road trip that weâ€™ve been doing, we met with Masiello 10 days ago. And he told me that when he took the Manhattan job, he almost took Russ Smith with him, but didnâ€™t really think he was good enough, so told him to stay in Louisville. Can you imagine how both of their lives and the UofL program would have been different if theyâ€™d ended up taking him?
VANETTI: Thatâ€™s unbelievable to me. And we knew that was all happening. We knew that Rick was not exactly high on Russ, but Russ refused to leave. Russ made the decision that he was going to make it here.
JONES: Thatâ€™s what Masiello said. He said Russ had his bags packed, and he just decided that he didnâ€™t really want to leave. But itâ€™s amazing how everything would have been so different based on that one decision.
VANETTI: Try and wrap your brain around this, Mr. Kentucky Recruiting Guy. What we thought was the worst recruiting class that Rick Pitino had brought to Louisville ends up being the winningest class in the history of the University with now 116 wins.
JONES: And that goes to show that, interestingly enough during this time of so much criticism of Calipari, it has shown that Cal does better with the most talent and Rick in some ways does better with the least talent. By that I mean that I donâ€™t think if youâ€™re a really good player you want to play for Rick because Iâ€™m not sure he knows what to do with really good players. His coaching style doesnâ€™t particularly translate. Itâ€™s not that they fail, but they donâ€™t reach their maximum potential, whereas I think they do with Cal. But what Rick is really good at is taking the guy that has no business being good and making them into really, really good players, and itâ€™s interesting to watch how they both operate.
VANETTI: No question. Now I got a question for you. Itâ€™s the end of the second semester â€“ not the first semester â€“ the end of the second. So I want you to give each coach, Calipari and Rick, a grade for their second semester. 2014, not 2013.
JONES: Ok I would give Rick a B+. I think the team is playing well. I still donâ€™t think theyâ€™re quite there yet. Theyâ€™ve lost to Memphis twice and Cincinnati at home. But when they beat teams, they pound them. For Cal, I donâ€™t think we can give him anything but a D+. Itâ€™s just been a rough go at it. You could make the argument that these past two weeks have just been his worst two weeks at Kentucky. Itâ€™s been such a dramatic drop. Now, thereâ€™s still time to try and turn that around. But for right now, I donâ€™t know how you could say anything other than itâ€™s been a really bad three months for Calipari.
VANETTI: I agree with your grades on both these guys. Rick gets a B+, Calipari gets a D+. Is it the most surprising outcome that youâ€™ve ever witnessed at the Univeristy of Kentucky, going from first to out of the top 25?
JONES: Well, it might be the most suprising negatively. There have been a couple teams that have surprised me for the positive, like the 2004 Kentucky team that ended up being the number one overall in the tournament was surprising in a good way. But this may be the most surprising in a negative respect. This team I thought was going to be so much better. And itâ€™s not just their record, even though their record isnâ€™t great. But I thought they were just going to pound teams. If you wanted to be an optimist, you could say, “Well, at least theyâ€™re used to close games,” but all of their games are close. Even the games they win are close. It is surprising. Iâ€™ve been surprised how poorly the talent has come together. They still have a lot of talent, I do believe that. But they have just not come together. Their offense is stagnant and itâ€™s been a huge surprise to me.
VANETTI: Youâ€™ve been on the road how many days now?
JONES: Iâ€™ve been on the road two straight weeks.
VANETTI: So you can put weight on pretty quickly â€¦ how fat have you gotten on the road?
JONES: (Laughing) I donâ€™t think thatâ€™s happened. That wasnâ€™t very nice, Mr. BodyShape Medical. I donâ€™t know what thatâ€™s about. But it is hard to stay fit with all the driving and sittingâ€¦whatever. OK, so the conference tournament is coming up. Do you think either Kentucky or Lousiville can handle or will win their conference tournament?
VANETTI: You know what? To me, Louisville got the easiest draw and Kentucky got a tough one. I mean, right out of the gate, youâ€™re assuming LSU wins and Kentucky will play them.
JONES: I donâ€™t think itâ€™s certain LSU will win, I think Alabama can beat LSU. I disagree with you on Kentuckyâ€™s draw. LSU is a tough game, but youâ€™re telling me in the semifinals they could get either Georgia or Ole Miss? Wouldnâ€™t you take that in a heartbeat? Itâ€™s one of those things that, if Alabama beats LSU or if Kentucky can beat LSU themselves, then theyâ€™ve got a good run. So it could have been a lot worse. Tennessee may be playing the second best in the conference. You avoided the M, you avoided Arkansas thatâ€™s beat you twice. So I donâ€™t think itâ€™s all that bad.
VANETTI: OK, so you tell me whatâ€™s the percentage that Kentucky walks out of Atlanta and itâ€™s called CATlanta again?
JONES: Iâ€™d say Kentuckyâ€™s got about a 60 percent chance to make the finals. I like their chances to make the finals. I think probably only about a 20 percent chance to win it. Hereâ€™s what I think is going to happen: I think Tennessee is going to upset Florida, and itâ€™s going to be fun. And if that happens, Kentucky plays Tennessee and itâ€™s going to be a really good game. Florida is just playing so well right now, Iâ€™m not sure if Kentucky can win, but I give them about a 60 percent chance. Kentucky just needs to get to the finals and get up to a six seed, which is better than a seven seed. Thatâ€™s what Iâ€™d like to see them do. As far as Louisville, I think theyâ€™ll win that tournament. I think they wonâ€™t lose to Memphis a third time. They got lucky in avoiding Cincinnati, who I think would have maybe beat them. I think Memphis will beat Cincinnati and then Louisville will beat Memphis in the finals.
VANETTI: So, youâ€™re going with the six for Kentucky and what for Louisville?
JONES: If it goes like I think, Kentucky as the six and Louisville as a three. I think if they win the tournament, they will be a three. You have to remember, everyone talks about tournament seeding, but people forget that all but about seven teams will lose over the next few weeks. Thereâ€™s only a handful of teams that can win their conference tournament. I think if Lousiville wins theirs theyâ€™ll finish strong enough to be a three, and theyâ€™ll be a dangerous three. It will be all about the brackets for Louisville. But Iâ€™ll see some brackets where Louisville is in the Final Four. This year more than any year, brackets are going to be way imbalanced. There is going to be two seeds like Villanova that I think stink. So if you get Villanova as your two and San Diego State as your three, I mean, you could walk to the Final Four. So I think this year, itâ€™s all about what bracket you get in.
VANETTI: Iâ€™m going with you. I think Kentucky is a six or a seven and I think Louisville will probably get hurt by their schedule, and I think theyâ€™ll be a four seed. But Iâ€™d rather be a worse seed in a better bracket. Forget being the two seed in a tougher bracket. Iâ€™ll take the four seed in an easier bracket all day long. So Iâ€™m taking seven and four for each team.
JONES: I agree with you. Let me say this, though: I think Wichita State is for real. I saw them in person and I think they are for real. I think last year was a fluke when they made the Final Four. I know they played Louisville well, but I donâ€™t know if they were ready then. This year, they are ready and for real. If I were to rank the teams in the country, to me they are the second best team in the country, which is amazing, but I really believe it is true.