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Rick Pitino, Russ Smith And Luke Hancock Preview Kentucky

Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Your pregame presser transcript via ASAP Sports.

Q.  For both Russ and Luke, how much different is this team that we're watching right now compared to the one that lost to Kentucky back in late December?

RUSS SMITH:  I think the team now is a little bit more smarter.  We get some more ball movement, guys know the sets and the new guys know what to do and where to be defensively. 

I think overall both teams are just better, and this time of year if you're playing in the Sweet 16, you've just made vast improvements in your offensive abilities and defensive abilities.  That applies to every team in the tournament as well with us.

LUKE HANCOCK:  I think we were struggling to kind of find an identity at that point.  And a lot of changes to our team since then.  And I think it's been for the better.  I think guys are kind of filling into their roles and know what they have to do to make our team better.

Q.  For both players, most of the pregame analysis has been about their size and your quickness and ability to force turnovers.  What factors are maybe being overlooked as we go into this game?

RUSS SMITH:  I think the factors, obviously they're bigger.  For us we're a little bit quicker.  But I think how well they've been playing as well just as a team, you can tell that this system has really made great strides along with our system. 
So this dates back to, this goes back to the last question we previously answered, just offensively and defensively both teams have gotten better. 

As far as quickness goes, I think we've also been doing a great job of our bigs hitting the glass as well.  And as far as Kentucky goes, I think they've been doing a better job handling pressure. 

So it's all a matter of who is going to be the better team tomorrow.

LUKE HANCOCK:  I think everybody wants to say experience is going to be on our side, but they're not young guys anymore.  They've been through an entire year of battles. 

Like Russ said, it's about who is going to make adjustments in the game, us rebounding them, handling the pressure, and so on and so on.

Q.  For both guys, how is the matchup hybrid zone that you guys are playing, how has that changed this team defensively over the last couple of months?

LUKE HANCOCK:  Just being able to pressure teams, trying to force more turnovers and the more we play it the better we're getting at it.  So guys are making their rotations when they're supposed to be getting in there, boxing out when they're supposed to be. 

Early on in the year you just don't make those rotations, especially with new guys coming into your defense, because it's not the easiest thing in the world to pick up. 

So I think just making those small rotations and making those small extra plays, staying tight when you're supposed to be and really getting out on shooters, just a bunch of little things to make our zone more impressive.

RUSS SMITH:  I think we were making in the beginning of the year, making the first, second rotation.  Now that we've had a few more months under our belt, the new guys, along with ourselves, are making the fourth and fifth rotation and that's really been helping us a lot. 

Also hitting the backboard, defensive glass and offensive glass has helped us take strides.  So just getting better as a whole unit and improving every day in practice has definitely contributed to our success so far.

Q.  For both guys, the Kentucky players downplayed the rivalry, said this game is bigger than the rivalry.  How are you all approaching it and what do you remember about the 2012 Final Four game and dealing with all the hype of Kentucky‑Louisville in the tournament?

RUSS SMITH:  It is a rivalry game.  There's no way around it.  But at the end of the day they're right, it's much bigger than a rivalry.  It's a Sweet 16 game. 

They would have to play with the same enthusiasm and wake up reading the same scouting report as if they were playing a UCLA in the Sweet 16 or UConn.  It's just the same game face. 

You just want to get to the next round.  And that's what's most important.  I feel the same way.  I felt the same way the last two, three years, coming into this program, be prepared for every team the same way. 

So preparing for Kentucky is really no different.  The goal is to get to the Elite Eight. 
If you let the university or the other school that you're playing against get in the way of that it could potentially become a problem.

LUKE HANCOCK:  I agree.  Our goal is to get to the Elite Eight.  This is a Sweet 16 game.  We're going to treat it like any other game, go prepare the way we always do for any other team, whether it's Duke, UNC, whoever we're playing.  We're going to go in prepare the same way, Manhattan, St. Louis, whoever it is, we're going to go about our business the same way.

Q.  For both players again, what do the seniors understand about college basketball that a freshman cannot?

RUSS SMITH:  I think there's a certain psyche behind the game for seniors.  It means a little bit more.  And it could potentially be their last game.  So certain rotations or certain plays that you may put emphasis on that you may not have put emphasis on at the beginning of the year, the emphasis becomes bigger this time of the year. And freshmen, but the difference between freshmen is freshmen are going to play hard no matter what.  That's what's so scary. Freshmen, regardless of how prepared they are, regardless of how trained they are, they're going to always be ready to play and they're always going to come play hard. They may not do the right things, but they're always going to be ready to play. 

And that's what's so frightening about Kentucky, that they have about six or seven freshmen that are ready to play.  And they have the will to win.  But with us I think our veterans and our senior guys, we've been here before.  So there's really no advantage. 

If you have both guys on, both guys on both teams that's going to play hard, then I don't think there's no advantage, we'll just have to see tomorrow.

LUKE HANCOCK:  I agree.  Just keeping focused this time of the year and not getting caught up might be a little advantage for an older guy. 

But like Russ said, they've got six, seven, eight, nine, ten guys that are going to play real hard.  We have the same.  It's not going to be too big of an advantage either way.

Q.  Russ, from what you've seen, what improvement have you seen in Kentucky's guard play from the time you played them in December until now?

RUSS SMITH:  With the amount of minutes that they've played at the guard position, and in February they've become sophomores, January they've become sophomores, they're not freshmen anymore.  They've improved on their decision‑making, getting into the lane.  They obviously have a dribble drive offense, and that's sometimes hard to emulate.

And they've done a great job getting down the offense.  So their decision‑making and their intelligence within their system has made strides.  And that's pretty impressive.

Q.  Russ, this is a follow‑up to the question about the seniors.  You considered leaving last year.  What do you think this year has given you and are you happy with the decision that you made?

RUSS SMITH:  First and foremost, this year has given me the opportunity to enjoy college, to be a senior, to know what it's like to get that experience. 

Second, I'm going to get my degree.  That's very important for myself and my family.  And third, I get a chance to end my career on a great note. 

I had a chance to have senior night at the Yum! Center and things like that.  Means a lot to me.  I got a chance to help some freshmen and new guys develop and just become a person, become a changed man, that's really important to me.

Q.  Rick, obviously no matter who you'll be playing it will be a big game in the Sweet 16 realm.  How important is it that your guys ignore the noise that goes on in your state when this happens?

COACH PITINO:  I think they've done that.  We've gotten used to the noise, so we don't‑‑ we understand what's at stake. 

I've said it many times:  I've been in the state 20 years, and the game to me has really only had difficult consequences for the loser twice. Once was two years ago when they stopped our run in the Final Four, and the next game we play. 

Q.  Coach, could you talk about just the matchup zone, how that's changed your defense these last couple of months?

COACH PITINO:  We haven't really played as much matchup zone as we did two years ago.  I think we've run from 80/20 to 50/50 to 80/20 man.  So we haven't played a whole lot of it this year.

Q.  Rick, quick two‑parter.  One, do you think college athletes are employees; and, two, is there a right or wrong way to run an athletic program, like especially when you're looking at the kind of one‑and‑done thing over at Kentucky and other schools who bring players and keep them for a while?

COACH PITINO:  First question, to answer it honestly, I haven't really thought about it.  It's the first time with Northwestern that I even thought about it. 

Second question is I think everybody plays under the same set of rules.  So if they're players for one year and that's the rules, you live with it.  If not, you go to two or whatever number it may be.  Everybody has a magic number. 
Being eight years in the NBA, I understand the union, the Players Association.  And until the new Collective Bargaining Agreement comes around, it's really only rhetoric right now.

Q.  Rick, there was so much talk at the beginning of the year about this being the year of the freshman.  So many of those guys who got so much of the hype are gone. What, if anything, does it say about Kentucky's guys or the way John Calipari coaches freshmen that they're still here?

COACH PITINO:  Two weeks ago I was asked by the Louisville media what do I think of the rumors of John going back to the pros.  I said why would you say something like that?  Because they lost a game. So I don't‑‑ he's one of the premier coaches in our game.  Has always been.  The thing that I remember most about John, because I've known him since he was 15, is he always didn't have one‑and‑dones.  He had a team at Massachusetts, and I knew where he took them from to today. 

And he had the least amount of talent on the court when he went out there.  And he didn't play an easy schedule.  He had to take a lot of people on to get Massachusetts in the limelight.  I've seen all stages of John's career. 
And so it doesn't surprise me that they're playing well at this time.  It was a great game the other night by both teams.  I know how good Wichita is.  Now they're a much better offensive time this year than last year, much better defensive team.  Wichita is a great basketball team.  Kentucky beat a great basketball team.

Q.  Can you talk about your own Sweet 16 success, and does that just speak for how well your teams are playing at this time of the year?

COACH PITINO:  I think so.  I think more than anything else you have a lot of preparation time this week and you try your best to figure out a team.  This is probably one of the more difficult ones that I have faced as a coach, because they have so many weapons that are playing well right now. 

And we understand what we're up against.  But I can tell you very honestly, with all humility, that I know Kentucky in that locker room are not worried about my resumé, they're worried about Russ Smith, Luke Hancock, Montrezl Harrell.  Because every game is different that you play. 

I know we have a very good basketball team.  They have a very good basketball team.  It should be a heck of a game.

Q.  Going back to that first game, is there anything you can take away from that that you apply to tomorrow?

COACH PITINO:  We had Chane Behanan back then.  He didn't play real well, but we had him in that game. 
And I think they're a much better basketball team today and I think we're a much better basketball team today.  And you would expect that, because those games are always played so early.

Q.  Rick, as a follow‑up to the question about players ages, knowing what you know from the pros in college, what would you like to see?

COACH PITINO:  The players agents? 

Q.  No, ages.

COACH PITINO:  Ages.  You know, there's so many arguments.  I heard John make the argument that he's not for the kids going out of high school because‑‑ and he's right on this.  The greatest thing about the one year not going out of high school is I see the academic progress of high school, eighth graders, freshmen, sophomores, juniors paying so much more attention to their academic part of their life. 

This is going to sound strange but I could probably name in their minds 50 ninth and tenth graders right now if there was no one‑and‑done rule, that would think they're capable of going out of high school and they would not pay attention to their academic standards because, without question, they're going pro, as well as some of the families. 
So there is some good about the one‑and‑done in terms of the academic standards getting better. 

I think in the best of all worlds, me personally I would like to see exactly what football has.  And I'm not against, with the exception of what I just said, I'm not against kids going out of high school into the D‑League if they want to choose that. 

But I know their academic standards would suffer because so many guys that couldn't play in the D‑League would not pay attention to their academic work. So there's an argument for and against every situation.  But I think right now there's so many people that think the one‑and‑done is not the correct way.  So it's not for me to argue, it's for the NBA and the NCAA to bring about the arguments, what's best for the student‑athlete.

Q.  You mentioned knowing John since he was 15.  How would you characterize your relationship, and what do you think drives the perception that it could be cold sometimes?

COACH PITINO:  I don't care about perception because perception is not reality.  We're friends.  We respect each other's programs very much and we're friends in this business. And I certainly have great respect for what they're accomplishing right now.  But it really doesn't matter what perception is because perception is not reality in this world.

Q.  Coach, I know you're concentrating on your team, but knowing the whole history of the triangle between Louisville, Kentucky and Indiana, how surprised were you that there's no team from the state of Indiana in the original 68‑team field?

COACH PITINO:  You're right; I'm not thinking about that at all.

Q.  Different sort of question, your son is advancing in the NIT tournament and going to New York.  What have you seen from him this year, just the job he's done, and what was it like going up there with your other son dressed as a chicken?

COACH PITINO:  It's been an absolutely wonderful year watching him develop as a coach.  I really thought he even did a better job at Florida International.  He was two points away.  That program was decimated academically and athletically.  He was starting walk‑ons that were in top five categories in steals. 

He's made it a lot of fun for the guys on the team.  And I love seeing that.  And I love seeing the way he's handled himself, his competitive nature. And now he's going to the Finals at Madison Square Garden where he grew up as a young boy being a ball boy with the New York Knicks.  It's a great treat for me. It's exciting for me to see. 

Q.  Any chance you'll take a trip in a chicken suit?

COACH PITINO:  Not in a chicken suit, but I'll take many trips to Minnesota.

Q.  There's been a lot of talk in this tournament about the extension of video replay, the way it's changed the ends of games, a lot of start and stops as officials try to check the monitors.  What are your thoughts on how it has changed, how do you handle the last two minutes when there's more checking the monitor, how do you as a coach use those breaks to your advantage while maybe making sure that guys don't lose focus or don't lose sort of the edge they have?

COACH PITINO:  Sometimes it's an extra timeout, certainly, you get ahold of your team.  I would think that one of the things I would do, I think if I‑‑ while they're checking it, they do take a long time because they want to get it right, I would make the team stay away from the bench and not huddle with the coach because it's an extra timeout.  I would have them not go in with the coach. 

They would have to go to the other side of the floor, let them check the monitor.  It's not an advantage in terms of a timeout.  That's the only thing.  I like it a lot because it gets it right.  I lost a game at Pittsburgh where it was off the wrong person and we lost the game.

Q.  Coach, I asked Pacers head coach and UK grad Frank Vogel who he would be rooting in this matchup he said:  Go Cards.  Owing that, of course, to you.  What's your relationship with like Coach Vogel and how proud are you his success?

COACH PITINO:  I'm extremely proud of Frank.  He's done it the right way, worked his way up the right way.  Was one of the best workers I've ever seen in my lifetime.  Knew how to do it, is doing a fabulous job there. And he told me last year, at a game, he said:  Coach, we're going to get back and we're going to win this darn thing. And although he carries himself very humbly, he has great confidence in the Pacers and what they're going to do.  I'm super excited.  I'm a big Pacer fan, excited to see what he's going to do.

Q.  Could you briefly discuss when you first met Cal and also when you‑‑

COACH PITINO:  I'm sorry? 

Q.  When you first met Cal.

COACH PITINO:  First met Coach Calipari.

Q.  Second part.  When you two are coaching together in a state like Kentucky in basketball, does it hurt, help or have no effect on your relationship with him?

COACH PITINO:  You know, I think it hurts a little bit because you all bait and try to get certain answers out of us.  And if John says:  I like a certain thing, some people think he's taking a shot at me, vice versa, it's not that we've talked about it together about that.  He's the total opposite with me with social media. And I know he believes in it and he knows I don't believe in it.  So we're not taking sides on that.  Tom Izzo doesn't believe in it, maybe somebody else does.  We understand what takes place between the lines. We understand the fans' intensity, but we don't personalize our battles.  We understand what it's all about.  The best team's going to win.

Q.  When did you first meet?

COACH PITINO:  I first met him when he was probably 14, 15 years of age as a camper at the Five‑Star camp.