The madman kept his tie knotted all game long. He tried to compose himself one last time at the end. Tubby Smith still didn't fool anybody.
Moments after Kentucky shook Stanford 86-85 in overtime Saturday night, the kids who have grown to love playing for Smith could not resist busting his chops. They know their coach's abiding love of order. Nearly all of the previous 45 minutes had been filled with chaos. They clearly enjoyed it a lot more than he did."A one point, we really had to straighten coach out," said Kentucky guard Jeff Sheppard, recalling the scene on the bench just before the extra period tipped off. "He kept asking whose ball it was. We told him, `Coach, they put in a new rule. It's called a jump ball.' "
A moment later, someone asked Sheppard to describe Kentucky's final in-bounds play, a broken bit of choreography that ended with Allen Edwards heaving a bomb downcourt that teammate Wayne Turner ran under like Jerry Rice. It wasn't much artistically, but it worked.
"Oh, it's a designed play," Sheppard assured the gathering. "We've worked on it all season long. The guys just run around all crazy, we throw it somewhere and hope one of our guys catches it."
As Sheppard finished this story, he covered his mouth with his hand to hide a widening grin. Two seats to his right, Smith made no such attempt to disguise his mirth. He could afford to laugh - finally.
"It will take a while for me to really appreciate this," Smith said.
"A lot of great coaches and players never had this experience."
Whether anyone besides Smith expected he would eventually find his way this deep into the tournament some year, no one will admit they expected it to be this one. Yes, when Smith took over before the start of this season from Rick Pitino, he took over one of the most storied programs in college basketball.
But three players from the team that won the national championship in 1996 were first-round NBA draft picks. Two players from last season's runner-up followed Pitino into pro ball via the same route. All the talent on the team Smith inherited this season isn't enough to get most NBA general managers to return a phone call. But he has made the sum of his players a good deal more than the individual parts.
Just as he had all season, Smith never quit tinkering with his substitution patterns Saturday. Stanford pulled into a double-digit lead early, but instead of panicking and riding his starters, Smith let the bench do the catching up.
It might have seemed like a dicey strategy, but he reads players with an accuracy few coaches have. Smith's oldest son, G.G., played for him at Georgia, and his youngest son, Saul, now plays for him at Kentucky. Having raised them to play, then having watched them up close for so long, he reads weariness in a player faster than most coaches. And he can tell by the set of a player's shoulders whether he wants the ball or wants out of the game at the crucial junctures. Then he adjusts his game plan accordingly.
Smith also saves timeouts the way some people hoard coupons. He might spend an entire game off his chair, work the sideline as if he was being chased, but he believes in starting out calm. And so, he uses his timeouts to make sure everybody knows their role.
As masterfully as Smith marshaled his resources to the very end of the Kentucky-Duke game, he may have done an even better job against Stanford. Three times down the stretch, the Wildcats came out of a timeout and set up Sheppard for three-pointers.
"They were called plays. We see a guy with a hot hand," Smith said, "and . . ."
And somebody has to figure out how to get him the ball. Smith didn't finish, but unlike Pitino, who ran the Kentucky program like a dictatorship, Smith runs a democracy. He wants the players to solve the puzzles themselves. On the floor. During games.