Myth Busters: Tubby Smith Won a Championship with Rick Pitino's Team
It has not been a good day for Tubby Smith. He has just gotten fired from Minnesota, and, as if that wasn’t enough, his firing has reopened the debate of rather or not he can coach at all.
A long-standing myth in Kentucky basketball lore is that Tubby Smith’s lone championship in 1998 is more a result of what Rick Pitino left behind, than a product of Tubby’s coaching.
While Tubby clearly inherited a powerhouse program from Pitino, to say that he walked in to championship team is a gross underestimation of not only Tubby Smith’s coaching that season but also what it takes to coach in general.
Perceived vs. Actual Talent Level
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The perception of the 1998 team is that it bears some resemblance to the 1996 team. A team loaded with future NBA players that could go undefeated based on talent alone.
In reality, the '98 team was certainly more talented than the average college basketball team, but only four players from that team would have NBA careers of note—Nazr Mohammed, Michael Bradley, Scott Padgett and Jamaal Magloire.
To put that in perspective, Paul Pierce’s Kansas team, Mike Bibby’s Arizona team and Vince Carter’s North Carolina team all had equal or greater talent than Kentucky that season.
This was not a Kentucky team that people expected to win a championship. This is highlighted by the fact that towards the beginning of the '97-'98 season, Kentucky was only ranked No. 8 in the country.
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The 1997-1998 team is probably best known for its knack for getting down by large deficits and then coming back to win the game.
They were down 17 to Duke in the Elite 8, 10 to Stanford in the Final Four and 10 to Utah in the championship game. They came back to win all of those games. At the time, 10 was the largest halftime deficit ever overcome by a team in a title game.
Nothing indicates high-quality coaching more than making adjustments and coming back from deficits. Talented, poorly-coached teams can blow out opponents. But it takes coaching to rally from large deficits like the ones Kentucky faced that season.
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Supporters of this myth like to conveniently leave out the fact Rick Pitino did not win the title in 1997.
In 1997 Rick Pitino actually failed to win the championship with essentially the same impact players Tubby had in 1998, plus future NBA players Ron Mercer and Derek Anderson.
Now to be fair to Rick Pitino, that team only lost by 5 points in the national title game. Derek Anderson also suffered a season ending injury. That season is a great coaching job in it's own right.
Even so Tubby was able to bring the Cats back to glory in 1998 with arguably less talent than Pitino had in 1997.
Talent Doesn’t Make the Team
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Let’s pretend for a second that this Kentucky team had the overwhelming talent level people perceive it to have.
It is a well-known fact the best collection of talent does not always equal national titles. Look no further than the early teams of John Calipari and Bill Self. Both coaches had substantial talent on multiple teams before winning championships.
Texas' Rick Barnes and Baylor's Scott Drew are two perfect examples of coaches that have had talent but still don't have much to show for it.
Maybe the best example is Billy Gillispie’s 2009 Kentucky team. That team only made the NIT, yet it boasts five NBA players in Jodie Meeks, Patrick Patterson, Darius Miller, DeAndre Liggins, and Josh Harrellson.
All of this is to say, whether the cupboard was bare or full, nobody walks into a championship season.