NEW YORK — It was never about where St. John’s will play Connecticut next season. Not really. It was about jockeying and positioning and pecking order among coaches in a league where the jockeying and positioning and pecking order of head coaches has always been a blood sport.
Thirty years ago, Rick Pitino waltzed into his first Big East meeting and nearly came to blows with Rollie Massimino, fresh off a national title, over the distribution of revenue involving a ball deal. A season later, he responded to John Thompson Jr. calling Pitino a “punk,” during a game by suggesting that the Georgetown coach (who by then had played in three national finals and one won of them) “grow up.” The two loudly discussed their feelings for one another at halfcourt in the middle of a game, Pitino refusing to back down even though he stared at Big John’s navel.
Recently, Pitino suggested UConn and St. John’s meet next year at Carnesecca Arena as a celebration of Lou Carnesecca’s 100th birthday, swearing he meant the whole thing as a compliment to the power of the UConn brand — one that is so strong it might otherwise turn Madison Square Garden against the home team. It left Dan Hurley little room to respond without sounding either arrogant or like an ass. He swore he would offer no clickbait in a pregame conference call, but then couldn’t quite stop himself. He referenced “bad blood,” before pivoting to a soliloquy filibuster about the state of college basketball marketing that never quite got back to the root of the bad blood.
In a league in which Gary Williams once chased Massimino down the hallways at halftime, the Boston College boss cursing the Villanova coach about putting the refs in his hip pocket, this little war of words is barely a tempest in a Neti pot. And it played well in a town that loves its theatre, creating an atmosphere on Saturday afternoon that was probably a little better than a game between the nation’s No. 1 team and a 13-8 squad that’s lost five of its last six might otherwise merit.
Outside, scalpers looked for extras, and inside, the Garden essentially was cleaved in two. In the lower bowl, the red-hued Red Storm fans heckled Hurley, booed Donovan Clingan and screeched at the referees. From up above, the Husky faithful bellowed their support … and screeched at the officials, too.
Backed by the crowd, St. John’s hung around longer than it probably otherwise would have, succumbing midway through the second half to UConn’s relentless defense and falling, 77-64. Pitino accurately pointed toward a spate of turnovers — three in 51 seconds, to be exact — that served as the turning point. But he also keyed in on the very simple reality. “They’re better than us,” Pitino said. He should not feel bad. UConn is better than a lot of people right now. The Huskies played without Alex Karaban (sprained ankle) and with Clingan limited by foul trouble. So Tristen Newton, Cam Spencer and Stephon Castle instead combined for 62 of UConn’s 77 points.
Late in the game, Spencer, who plays as if he has Hurley blood coursing through his veins, turned bug-eyed and grinning to taunt the fans after forcing his third turnover. It did not go over well. It did not seem to bother Spencer.
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As the alpha dog, UConn is naturally not going to be loved by everyone. Hurley praised the talented national anthem singer for the game, choosing to ignore the fans who spastically interrupted every pause with a “F—- UConn’’ shout. He is not only OK with not being loved, he is willing to shed the gloves of political correctness and admit that there aren’t a lot of Miss Congeniality awards being handed out in the coaching profession. “Some of the stuff we do, we piss each other off,” he said talking about the entirety of the Big East coaching fraternity, not just Pitino. “Recruiting sometimes, somebody doesn’t like the way somebody recruited and we hold on to that s—. Same thing in a game. They might not like how I coach, how I am with the refs, with the emotion. It causes friction. I think it’s good. It brought interest to this game and packed the arena.”
The beautiful irony, of course, is that Hurley is Pitino 2.0. He’s an exacting coach who demands of his players, won’t back down from a fight and won’t apologize for being good. Like Pitino, he’d rather spit on someone’s ring than kiss it. Pitino, do recall, walked into the Hoosier Dome in his early years at Kentucky and promptly called the officials over at halftime to inform them, “I coached in the NBA. You don’t have to put up with that from him.” Him being Bob Knight.
Just as Providence needed someone to fight for it in the brawling Big East early years, Hurley had to sharpen his elbows as the Huskies rejoined in the conference. So what if he made a few enemies along the way? He also won a national title.
“I don’t think we’re anywhere close to being a rival with them,” Pitino said. “As far as the crowd, I’m very appreciative, and maybe we could be someday, but not now. I lost my ego with the Celtics. I realized then I wasn’t the great coach I thought I was. It’s all about the players. They win and lose the game, not the coach. All we are, we’re like jockeys. You make one wrong move, and you lose your horse and your team.”
So instead, Pitino tried to kick up a little old-fashioned Big East dirt.
(Photo of Rick Pitino offering a hand to UConn’s Tristen Newton: Peter K. Afriyie / AP)