Old friends on opposite benches

Rick Pitino will open his ninth season at Louisville next Tuesday against Arkansas, coached by former Pitino player John Pelphrey, in the Hall of Fame Showcase in St. Louis.

Most will forget John Pelphrey's debut as a college basketball player. As a 6-7, redshirt freshman at Kentucky, the former Mr. Basketball from the Bluegrass State got the starting nod at point guard in the Basketball Hall of Fame's "Tip-Off Classic," almost 21 years ago to the day, Nov. 19, 1988.

"After all these years, I try to forget that game too," Pelphrey said.

The Wildcats were entering a tough period in its illustrious history. UK was under NCAA investigation; players had transferred and the coach at the time, Eddie Sutton, was trying to right the ship. Top-ranked Duke laid a hammering on the Cats that day, 80-55, and Pelphrey, who finished the game with seven points, six assists and four turnovers in 37 minutes, had his first taste of big-time college basketball. Ironically, his collegiate playing career would start with a forgotten game against Duke, and end four years later in one of the most memorable games in college basketball – Kentucky-Duke '92.

Following that dreadful 13-19 season, Rick Pitino took over the Cats' program, a brash young coach from the New York Knicks. He promised to turn the "Kentucky Shame," a label that graced the cover of Sports Illustrated the past season, back into Kentucky fame.

Yet, he was taking over a team depleted of star talent. All that was left was a roster highlighted by four young men thought to be average college players – Pelphrey, Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhaus and Sean Woods.

The resurrection took place at lightning speed. A remarkable 14-14 season the first year continued to improve with the addition of All-American Jamal Mashburn. For Pelphrey, it was an experience that defined his career in the sport, if not his life.


"More than anything else, Coach P (Pitino) found a value in me, that was what I most remember from my days at Kentucky with him," said Pelphrey, who went on to play professionally overseas before starting his college coaching career. "He and the staff there spent time with me as an individual, which helped me improve and get better.

"To be honest, I didn't have a college career before him."

Pelphrey, who became a great three-point shooter, was an All-Southeastern Conference performer and still ranks among Kentucky's all-time leading scorers with 1,257 points. His jersey, along with the other "Unforgettables" – Farmer, Feldhaus and Woods – hangs from the rafters at historic Rupp Arena. But it was his final game of his career that still is revisited by those in the game of basketball every March.

Duke-Kentucky '92.

The re-energized Wildcats trying to upend the defending national champions. A berth in the Final Four was on the line. Punch and counterpunch, momentum swings back and forth. And with 2.1 seconds remaining in overtime, Woods' running push shot in the lane banked in and the Cats had a 103-102 lead. In Kentucky, the earth shook.

Then came the legendary length-of-the-court pass and turnaround shot, the same shot that still leads into every NCAA Tournament game telecast. The shot Christian Laettner took, his 10th made field goal in 10 attempts. A dagger in the Bluegrass.

The one living, breathing, human being with the best view was Pelphrey, who stood between Laettner and the basket.

"It's like my feet were stuck in concrete," Pelphrey said. "I couldn't move."

"They were trying to steal the ball, but in the timeout before the play, a coach told them ‘whatever you do, don't foul,' so they froze," Pitino said, without identifying who spoke that fateful phrase."

A painful play for Pitino and Pelphrey, now relived in High Def each March. "It's not painful. It's one of the greatest games ever played," Pitino said. "You're disappointed that you lose, but all you do is just admire the players that played that game."

Eighteen seasons later, both are back on the floor together, Pelphrey in his third season as coach of Arkansas; Pitino now in his ninth year at Louisville.

While Pitino has resurrected yet another once great program – his Cardinals played in the 2005 Final Four in St. Louis – and last year finished the regular season as the nation's No. 1 team and top seed in the NCAA Tournament, Pelphrey is trying to duplicate that effort in Fayetteville.

"It takes time to build any brand," said Pitino of Pelphrey's challenge. "It doesn't happen overnight. You can strike gold and have a great season, like John did his first year there, but that doesn't mean you have a great program. It just takes time."

After Pelphrey led Arkansas to the 2008 NCAA Tournament second round for the first time since 1999, his freshman-laden team knocked off two Top 5 opponents in a single week last season – Texas and Oklahoma – before off-court issues and the typical "freshman fatigue" had the ‘Backs limping to season's end. This year, Pelphrey begins that long march back to the top. His UofA team has players now experienced in his "Pitino-like" system of running and shooting the three.

"To me, Coach P is the best coach in the country," Pelphrey said. "The way he's rebuilt so many different programs at different levels is unprecedented. And the single biggest accomplishment of all of his coaching methods is simply that he always makes everyone around him better.

"I always try to take those same lessons and apply them to my teams. I want our players to go above and beyond what they think can accomplish. Soon, we'll be there where we need to be."

While Pelphrey continues to build that brand, Pitino continues to fight his way back to the Final Four. Last year, the Cards were knocked out of the tournament in the regional final by Michigan State. Pitino then lost two lottery picks – Terrence Williams and Earl Clark – to the NBA Draft, but returns one of the nation's best big men in Samardo Samuels.

"It's an extremely tough opener," said Pitino, the only coach who has guided three different teams to the Final Four. "Now they're a year older with a terrific backcourt, a great frontcourt player in Michael Washington and four starters back. We wanted a tough opener and we certainly got it."

So how tough will it be for these two coaches to square off on the new Horner Court at Scottrade on Tuesday, knowing an individual who impacted history with you is coaching at the other bench?

"You don't do that," Pitino said. "Before and after the game, you think about them, but during the game, you don't look down the sidelines. You're focused on strategy to win the game."

"All the games are emotional for coaches, and this will be as well," Pelphrey added. "But to be honest, going against Coach, you have to be ready. His teams are always well prepared, they work so hard, they understand the team concept, they're unselfish and just very aggressive."

The same characteristics that Pelphrey learned two decades ago. Some memories never fade.

Ticket Information

A few lower arena tickets remain at the $55 level for the doubleheader while upper arena tickets are priced at $40 and $25. Tickets can be purchased at the Scottrade box office, Ticketmaster.com or by calling 800-745-3000. Louisville plays Arkansas at 6:30 p.m. CT on ESPN2 followed by Kansas vs. Memphis at 9 p.m. CT on ESPN.


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