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COLUMN: U of L fans can’t resist swipe at UK

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By Bob Watkins

Bracket-busting observations.
Disqualifying taxpayers in Fort Myers and Lee County, Fla., all those who have Florida Gulf Coast in your Sweet 16, raise your hands?
Hmmm.
If there is one, I’m betting odds are just as good he/she lives in Hoboken, N.J., and also owns last week’s $338 million winning lottery ticket.
CBS Sports, with basketball games wrapped around its torrent of commercials, needed a new face and got one. Florida Gulf Coast University is “out by the airport near Fort Myers.” Mascot? Had to be Azul, right? Az-what? Means “blue” in Portuguese and Spanish. Of course.
As the NCAA field parred itself to 16 the only teams playing better than Louisville are Ohio State, Duke and the kids whose mascot is azul.
•Coaches. Ben Howland at UCLA isn’t the first to get the axe, but save your sympathy. Three years back Howland let UCLA basketball become a house of horrors, last spring he sold out every principle John Wooden stood for, allowing Shabazz Mohammad and his dad to wag the UCLA dog.
Bottom line? Howland was under contract through 2017 and now gets half-Calipari-money, $3.2 million while he looks for a new job.
UCLA future? Newest Wizard of Westwood wannabe could be Shaka Smart at VCU, according to ESPN.

CLOSER TO HOME
Topics in no particular order.
•Louisville fans couldn’t resist a rub-it-in chant at Rupp Arena last week. “Russ Arena” during Russ Smith’s run of 50 points in two wins on UK’s home floor, was sophomoric and classless. But a remark that really rankled Wildcat fans came from Cardinals coach Rick Pitino at a post-game press conference.
“We don’t play the game for the lottery draft,” he told reporters. “We play the game for Louisville. Then our guys move on and they’re very successful people in and out of basketball.”
Hmmm. That which stings most is often nearest the truth.
Big Blue Nation fans able to get beyond being offended by Pitino’s little snipe, weigh the truth in it and are the real UK loyalists.
I believe the core fans in Big Blue Nation still respect and appreciate where Pitino took Kentucky’s basketball program, 1990 to 1997.
•Can Western Kentucky convert a nice dance with ripe-for-upset Kansas into dividend futures?
Since the Hilltoppers could not “throw one in the ocean” in the last three minutes and lost to top seed Kansas by seven, can coach Ray Harper go find a Rotnei Clarke (Butler) shootist for Western?
Fans love shooters. If Harper finds one or two, E.A. Diddle Arena will be SRO again.
With a virtual full roster of returnees, Hilltopper fans can reasonably expect not only a return to The Dance next spring, but more than one dance.
•Kentucky. What next for Wildcat basketball?
All blue skies. Big Blue Nation was spared any lasting effect of the Robert Morris fiasco when high school prize Julius Randle pulled on a UK ball cap a day later making what some call the best recruiting class in college history. Presto, countdown to Big Blue Madness was under way.
Wildcat fans congregating at local coffee shops are in for a spring and summer buzz. Speculation and rumor about UK’s roster is and will be as intriguing as trends on Wall Street.
Who stays and who goes? UK athletics officials notoriety for believing their concealment of “what’s going on,” is as important as shuttering whereabouts of the Hope Diamond, adds grist to the rumor mill. It’s all part of the fun.
Next big thing? The Derby Classic all-star game at Freedom Hall April 19.
Kentucky fans are sure to see roster changes sure to come as organizers hurry to add more of one or more of six UK signees to a roster that currently includes only Derek Willis.

READERS WRITE
From Henderson: “A lot of Kentucky fans have been down on our freshman Alex Poythress. Compare his freshman season with freshman season of former UK great Jamal Mashburn.”
Statistical parallels pale in comparison to what these two meant to their teams. With a no-nonsense coach in his face (Pitino) and one-and-done not an option, Mashburn had no chance to be a pouty rookie. He became a man early, was one of five double-figure scorers and led his team in rebounds. Result? Probation-ridden Kentucky finished 22-6, SEC-best 14-4.
Bottom line? Mashburn matured early, became an All-American, then turned to professional basketball and today is a successful businessman with his UK number retired. Poythress did not mature, but has another chance to grow up.
America, I love this place.

WORTH REPEATING DEPARTMENT
Email is fascinating this time of year.
“We’re stuck with one-and-done. These great freshmen players want to get on with their multi-million dollar professional careers. They have to do what’s best for themselves and families.  
“They don’t need to worry about what I want or think about what they’re doing with their professional choices. I’d like to see those great UK basketball players forced to stay in school four years. That might cause them to lose $5 or $6 million, but what the hell, I’m happy!”
And so it goes.