Goliaths of Hoops Taking On Davids Is Good for All

Billy’s got a soft spot for the Bellarmines and Pikevilles of the college basketball universe, and says that players on both sides have a lot to learn from early season exhibitions.

by Billy Reed

On Sunday night, I attended the dinner at Keeneland that was held in honor of the first basketball game between the University of Kentucky and Transylvania University (my alma mater) in 100 years. The, ah, contest will be held Wednesday night in Rupp Arena, which actually is closer to Transy’s small downtown Lexington campus than to UK’s sprawling campus a mile or so away.

Bellarmine played at Duke as part of a tough schedule/ PHOTO: Bellarmine

Both head coaches, John Calipari of UK and Brian Lane of Transy, brought their teams. When the coaches asked the players to stand, the difference was laughable. It was the difference between future NBA stars and, well, students. The Pioneers’ tallest player, who’s 6-feet-4, would be one of UK’s smallest.

So, yeah, it’ll be a blowout on the floor Wednesday night. What do you expect when a big-time program with unlimited resources meets an NCAA Division III program that can’t even give athletic scholarships? But that’s not the point. The point is that Calipari has decided to let Transy have a moment in the huge spotlight that shines incessantly on UK basketball.

Rick Pitino is doing the same thing at the University of Louisville. Last Wednesday night, the Cardinals played host to the University of Pikeville (formerly Pikeville College), the defending NAIA champion, in the KFC Yum! Center. This Thursday the Cards will roll out the red carpet for Bellarmine, the Louisville Catholic university that won last season’s NCAA Division II national title.

The affection and mutual respect that Pitino and Bellarmine coach Scotty Davenport, a former Pitino assistant, was evident on Tuesday night, Oct. 24, when the two taped Davenport’s TV show at Bourbon’s Bistro on Frankfort Avenue. No matter what their level, coaches share a love for the game and the difficulty of winning championships.

It was the same kind of feeling that was on display Sunday night at Keeneland when Calipari and Lane heaped praise on each other. Both coaches laughed when emcee Dave Baker introduced Lane as “the second highest-paid head college coach in Lexington.” Graciously, Calipari agreed to turn all proceeds from the dinner over to Transylvania for its athletics program.

What might be pocket change to programs like UK and U of L is a windfall for the likes of Bellarmine, Transylvania, Pikeville, and Georgetown College. As former Georgetown coach Happy Osborne once told me, “I have to schedule a couple of D-I exhibitions every year to get the money I need to run my program.”

This year the Tigers weren’t able to schedule either UK or U of L, but it will be their turn again soon enough. For many years, back when UK’s Adolph Rupp refused to play any other state schools, Georgetown was a staple on U of L’s schedule.

In fact, the 45 points that the immortal Wes Unseld laid on Georgetown in the opening game of the 1967-’68 seasons remains U of L’s single-game scoring record. Unseld was so modest that he asked Coach John Dromo, who was starting his first season as Peck Hickman’s successor, to tell his teammates to stop feeding him. “If I’m going to get the ball,” Wes said, “just let me get it off the boards.” He did that, too, collaring 29 rebounds against the Tigers.

Now, as then, size makes a difference whenever a D-II, D-III or NAIA team goes up against one of the big boys. The difference in perimeter play isn’t nearly as obvious as the difference in the paint. The small schools just can’t get giant pivotmen like the 6-10 Plumlee brothers of Duke, 6-10 Gorgui Dieng of Louisville, and 6-10 Terence Jones of UK.

In the Pikeville-U of L exhibition, the visiting Bears fell behind 16-0, but then played the Cards fairly evenly the rest of the way. But at no point did they have an answer for Dieng (16 rebounds, six blocks, 12 points) or the other Cards who pounded the boards for 55 rebounds.

It was the same Saturday night when Bellarmine met Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Although the Knights have a D-I backcourt in Braydon Hobbs and Jeremy Kindle, not to mention a sensational offensive talent in Chris Dowe, they couldn’t match up with the Plumlee brothers, who combined for 30 points and 17 rebounds.

“The game was great,” Davenport told The Courier-Journal’s Eric Crawford, “but every time we made a mistake, it was a dunk on the other end.”

It will be more of the same in UK-Transy and Bellarmine-U of L. But where the Pioneers have no chance of competing with the Wildcats, the Bellarmine-U of L game would be much closer than either U of L-Pikeville or Bellarmine-Duke.

Davenport knows Pitino’s philosophy as well as Pitino, so the Knights will be prepared for whatever the Cards throw at them. Plus, the Bellarmine and U of L players often play against each other in the summer, so there will be no problem with intimidation or unfamiliarity. Finally, the Knights are more of a cohesive unit at this point, and their passing and movement will at times break down U of L’s defense.

Only two days after playing the Cards, the Knights will go to Cincinnati for a 6 p.m. Saturday game against Xavier University, a perennial member of the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16. In all likelihood, it’s the toughest stretch of exhibitions ever faced by a D-II, D-III, or NAIA program. Last year, the Knights drew national attention to themselves by upsetting the Musketeers.

At bottom, though, the final scores aren’t nearly as important as the goodwill that’s generated between the schools and their fan bases. A player at UK or U of L gets more autograph requests in one day than a D-II or D-III player is likely to get during their entire careers – and, yes, most of them do have careers, the one-and-done fiasco not being a problem at their level.

I wish there was more opportunity for the UK and U of L players to mingle and talk with their counterparts from Transy, Bellarmine, Pikeville, and Georgetown. Hopefully, it would give them a deeper appreciation for the advantages they enjoy. By the same token, the players from the smaller programs could learn a lot about what it’s like to be treated a little more than a commodity who is valued far more as an athlete than a student.

It will be interesting to see where all the players are 20 years from now. Because whether their talent takes them to the NBA or into some other endeavor, their success in life will depend on the values they’re learning now – and it’s the same for the UK and U of L players as it is for the ones from Transy, Georgetown, Pikeville, and Bellarmine.

They all must learn to avoid the temptations that can ruin their lives…to embrace responsibility and accountability…to learn the importance of good manners and how to treat people, including members of the media…to always make a place for spirituality and service…and to take advantage of the special opportunities they have to learn to make good decisions about friends, money, families, and values.

Who knows where or if these players will meet next? Whatever, at least they can look back upon these exhibition games as events in which things like sportsmanship and mutual respect were more important than money and winning. For the UK and U of L players, these events may well be their most pure exposure to college basketball – and that’s a good thing, indeed.

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