By Victoria Sun
DAVID KOHL/Associated Press
Kentucky's Rajon Rondo will be returning to his hometown when the Wildcats play Louisville.
Post staff reporter
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- When Rajon Rondo arrives at Freedom Hall to play on the court that could have been his home floor against the coach who spurned him to chase a pipe dream, Rondo's older brother Will says he won't hold a grudge.
"He has no bad feelings," Will said. "He still likes coach (Louisville head coach Rick) Pitino. He really just wants to win anywhere."
On the court where Rajon showed some growing pains a week ago in the University of Kentucky's win over Indiana is where he will try to help No. 9 UK beat archrival No. 13 Louisville at noon Saturday.
Both teams enter the game with records of 6-1.
Per UK head coach Tubby Smith's orders, Wildcat freshmen aren't allowed to speak to reporters until further notice.
Will says the even-keeled Rajon, who is from Louisville, isn't caught up in the rivalry and is preparing for this game like any other.
"He's not really hyped," Will said. "We didn't have a die-hard Louisville or Kentucky mentality in our family. He's watching game film, breaking down people and learning how to attack the other guards."
Rondo will most likely be matched up against U of L point guard Taquan Dean, who leads the Cardinals with 17.0 points per game.
It seems he could also use a scouting report on how to fit into Smith's controlled system.
Smith benched Rondo at the beginning of the second half against Indiana. Rondo had four points, one assist and two turnovers in a season-low 18 minutes.
"He was a little uncomfortable in the second half, but that's normal for a freshman when you're in a new system," said Doug Bibby, Rondo's coach for three years at Louisville's Eastern High School. He's just trying to figure out how to apply his style into coach Smith's system."
If Smith's style is decaf, then Rajon's style is cappuccino.
Rondo has already won UK fans over with his speed, athleticism and penchant for steals, and shown he is at his best in an up-tempo game.
He has started all seven contests for the Wildcats and is averaging 6.9 points and 2.3 assists. He had five steals in his collegiate debut against Coppin State and leads the Wildcats with 17 steals.
Smith said he is pleased with Rondo's progress but would like him to be more active on both ends of the court.
"I think he's developing into a pretty good point guard," Smith said. "He just needs to be a little more aggressive in looking for his shot because he's shooting a good percentage.
"He can be a little bit more active defensively, especially in transition."
The transition from being a highly praised McDonald's high school All-American to a consistent college player is one that will take some time as Rondo physically matures.
"We probably have a little more offenses," Smith said. "Where is last year he had a lot more options against teams that probably couldn't stop those options.
"(Now he is) playing against people of equal ability, equal size. It's a little bit different. I think those are the adjustments any freshman has to make to the speed of the game, the size, athleticism that you're going to run into and the people around you."
Rondo's success will depend on when he understands what Smith wants from him on the court. In the meantime, Bibby has advised Rondo to be patient.
"I just told him to keep on working hard defensively, work hard at practice and do what he can to figure out he situation," Bibby said. "If that takes talking to coach Smith, then yes he should. You don't want to go around confused because that's going to affect his play."
Will expects that 25 of their family and friends will be at the game.
There was a time when they would have gotten prime tickets from U of L, not UK.
Pitino really liked Rondo, who played his senior year at Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.), but he also had his heart set on Brooklyn, N.Y., point guard Sebastian Telfair, who everyone suspected was going to skip college and enter the NBA draft.
Pitino put Rondo on ice and gambled on Telfair, hoping he would put on a Cardinals uniform for at least one season. He wound up losing both players.
In January, Pitino discussed his plan with USA Today and (Westchester) Journal News columnist Ian O'Connor, who followed Telfair around for a year to write the upcoming book, "The Jump; Sebastian Telfair and the High-Stakes Business of High School Ball," (Rodale Press, $23.95).
"I was in his office and Bassy (Telfair) had a great game in the Prime Time Shootout at UCLA where there were a ton of NBA scouts," O'Connor said. "He said he was told a lot of NBA teams weren't interested in him except the Clippers and the good thing for us is, we're still recruiting other point guards.
"He told me, we're trying to convince Rajon that if Bassy comes here, he'll play with him and he's only going to come one year and he might not come at all."
Tired of waiting around, Rondo committed to UK in late January and Telfair, who had verbally committed to attend U of L, declared himself eligible for the NBA draft in May. The Portland Trail Blazers chose Telfair with the 13th overall pick in June.
"He didn't really offer Rajon a scholarship," Will Rondo said. "He just named terms as far if Sebastian comes this will happen and if he doesn't come, this will happen.
"He (Rajon) didn't want to be second choice, plus with the seniors Kentucky had leaving, he knew he could come in and play right away."
Pitino will see first hand what could have been Saturday.
THOMAS MIGHT RETURN -- Smith has yet to decide whether sophomore forward Sheray Thomas will be in uniform and ready to play against Louisville.
"We're watching how he does today," Smith said. "He's been practicing well. He feels good, he's playing like he never left the court. He just doesn't have the physical strength or stamina."
Thomas returned to practice recently after he had an undisclosed surgery in October.
TROOPS TUNE IN -- Kentuckians stationed in Iraq in camps Fallujah and Cooke will be able to watch Saturday's game via an ESPN feed that will be transmitted into the U.S. government's video system.
"I think it's wanting to bring something from this family knowing that hey, we care about you," Smith said. "Having something over the holidays, them being away from home, letting them know that if you are interested in basketball, there is a great college basketball game being played.
"It's a little relief, that's how I view it."