INDIANAPOLIS -- Normalcy has returned to the University of Kentucky basketball team and its coach, Rick Pitino. Those unfamiliar with what life is generally like in Lexington for the Wildcats should know this: It only means that things are not very normal at all.
Kentucky, the shackles removed from its two-year NCAA probation, is once again in the national spotlight. A 76-74 victory over then-No. 9 Indiana here Saturday raised the expectations of the Wildcats' insatiable fans.
And Pitino, whose status has gone from savior to saint in his first two seasons in the bluegrass, is being asked if Kentucky can win it all this season. He's also being asked if he plans to stay around for the celebration.
"Our only goal this year was to get into the NCAA tournament," Pitino, 39, said a few hours before the Wildcats won their most significant game since he became coach. "Physically, we're not a top-10 team. In the first four years, we won't have a first-round draft choice. This is a very slow process when you're coming off probation."
That process was hastened by last season's arrival of Jamal Mashburn, a 6-foot-8, 240-pound power forward from the Bronx, N.Y.; by Kentucky's 22-6 finish last season, which included a final No. 9 ranking and an unofficial Southeastern Conference championship; and by the victory over the Hoosiers, which all but erased the memory of an 18-point blowout defeat at home by Pittsburgh last month.
While this week's ranking (No. 9, with a 4-1 record) again is generating the pre-probation hysteria that is commonplace in the commonwealth, Pitino's current dilemma is not unfamiliar to those who have followed his career.
Having rebuilt the program a couple of years ahead of schedule, as he did at Providence, there have been published reports that Pitino soon will leave Kentucky. He reportedly is headed back to the NBA after the season, this time with the New Jersey Nets.
"It's not a distraction," he said of the rumors, which first surfaced in New York two weeks ago. "It's just a nuisance to me. Anything that doesn't have 1 percent of truth to it, you don't pay any attention to."
This is how Pitino chose to ignore the rumors: He immediately called a news conference in Lexington to deny them, and challenged the New York Post reporter who wrote the story by offering to bet the paper $20,000 (for charity) that he would stay. The newspaper declined Pitino's offer, but the news made headlines.
Such is life for this high-profile program and its highly visible coach. But the Kentucky players, most of whom were weaned on Wildcats basketball, are accustomed to performing in a fishbowl. And Pitino, with the two seasons he spent as coach of the New York Knicks, is used to it as well.
"After you coach in New York, everything else pressure-wise comes very easy," said Pitino. "The media, when you're not doing well, or as well as they think you should be doing, can be very difficult to deal with."
Given his penchant for the spotlight -- this is someone who, at 34, co-wrote a book called "Born To Coach" and owns a restaurant inLexington called "Bravo Pitino" -- Pitino has been something of an easy target for his critics.
Despite his visibility around Lexington, Pitino has done something his two immediate predecessors, Eddie Sutton and Joe B. Hall, could not. He has tried to shut off his team from the overzealous boosters who used to crowd the locker room after games.
"One of the reasons I hired Rick was that I knew he wouldn't be affected by all the outside pressures," said Kentucky athletic director C.M. Newton, a 1951 university graduate and former basketball coach at Alabama and Vanderbilt. "The only expectations Rick has are internal. What people outside the program say doesn't matter."
Asked how he has deflected the fans' expectations from his players, Pitino said: "That's been the easiest thing we've done. It doesn't matter what they [the fans] say. That's the edge I had not growing up with the Kentucky mentality. I don't care what they think."
His system is built around two basic principles: pressing on defense, shooting the three on offense. Because Kentucky has more blue-collar types than blue-chippers, success these days is often a byproduct of being better prepared than the opposition. In getting ready for Indiana, Kentucky assistant Herb Sendek went as far as to watch old clinic tapes made by Hoosiers coach Bob Knight.
"I've never been more ready to play a game," said senior forward Deron Feldhaus, whose three-point shooting helped the Wildcats win. "It's like I knew what they were going to do before they did it."
The victory restored the collective confidence of the Wildcats, in themselves and in what Pitino was trying to teach them. And it also reassured Pitino that his system could work with this Kentucky team, as it did last year, as it did in Boston, Providence and New York.
"On Wall Street, you're only as good as you're last trade," he said. "In basketball, you're only as good as your last game."
* Year .. .. .. Team .. .. .. W-L
'78-79 .. .. Boston U. .. .. 17-9
.. .. Boston U. .. .. 21-9 y
'80-81 .. .. Boston U. .. .. 13-14
.. .. Boston U. .. .. 19-9
.. .. Boston U. .. .. 21-10 x
'85-86 .. .. Providence .. .. 17-14 y
.. .. Providence .. .. 25-9 x
.. .. Kentucky .. .. .. 14-14
.. .. Kentucky .. .. .. 22-6
.. .. Kentucky .. .. .. 4-1
Totals .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 173-95
'87-88 .. .. Knicks .. .. .. .. 38-44 z
.. .. Knicks .. .. .. .. 52-30 z
Totals .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 90-74
x-Made NCAA tournament