LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - We’ll all be watching on Saturday afternoon to see how new Louisville basketball coach Chris Mack handles himself and his team in his first confrontation with John Calipari and his 10th Kentucky team.
The question will be the same as it has been since Calipari arrived in Lexington in 2009: Can a less-talented Cardinal team muster the energy, execution, resilience and luck to upset Calipari’s latest crop of future NBA stars? The answer so far: Calipari 8, UofL 2 (including two NCAA Tournament games).
The rivalry has grown so one-sided that like, say, Ohio State-Michigan in football, it no longer meets the dictionary definition of a rivalry. This ate at the fiercely competitive heart of Rick Pitino, the only man to coach both teams since they began playing each other annually in 1983.
During his glorious eight-year run at UK from 1989-1997, Pitino frustrated UofL coach Denny Crum every bit as much as Calipari later frustrated him. He was 6-2 against UofL before leaving to coach the Boston Celtics. When he returned to college basketball in 2001 to coach at UofL, of all places, he learned that hell hath no fury like a UK fan base scorned.
Pitino’s overall UofL record against UK was 6-12. He was 2-4 against Tubby Smith, and 2-0 against Billy Clyde Gillespie, making him 4-4 against UK before Calipari arrived with his obsession for developing NBA stars who only wanted to stay in college a year, two at the most.
But Pitino either couldn’t or wouldn’t go the one-and-done route. He felt he was good enough to take lesser talent and elevate it to the point where the Cards could hold their own against Calipari’s callow superstars. It turned out to be a matter of Pitino overestimating his ability, formidable though it was.
As the years wore on, it became increasingly clear that Pitino came to hate the series he once dominated. He couldn’t act like UK was just another game because he couldn’t hide how badly he wanted to beat Calipari and his system. His demeanor changed before the UK game, probably because he realized his way just wasn’t working.
He especially hated to play in Rupp Arena, where a jersey hangs honoring him as coach of UK’s 1996 national champions. The fans heckled him to the point that he flipped them the bird while storming off the court after what was to be his last game there in 2016. He felt they were ungrateful for what he had done in reviving UK after the scandals on Eddie Sutton’s watch (1985-1989) had brought the program down, and he probably had a point.
Now comes Mack, who learned much about rivalries – the cross-town version, at least – during his years at Xavier, which long has been regarded as “little brother” to Cincinnati. In December 2011, he was Xavier’s head coach when the Musketeers were involved in an ugly brawl with the Bearcats, who were -- and still are -- coached by former Pitino assistant Mick Cronin. Suffice it to say that, mercifully, nothing nearly so ugly has marred the UK-UofL series.
Mack can’t act like UK is just another game because that would make him look foolish. But he also can’t let the pressure to win –- and breathe life back into the rivalry –- mean as much to him as it did Pitino because that kind of tension trickles down to the players.
He already has made it more difficult for himself, in a sense, by doing such an impressive job in his first 12 games as the Cards head coach. The record is 9-3, and two of the losses – to Marquette on a neutral floor in Brooklyn -- and Indiana in Bloomington – could easily have been victories. Even the third loss – to No. 3 Tennessee on that same neutral floor in Brooklyn – was competitive until the last 10 minutes or so.
UK, meanwhile, started off the season with a shocking 118-84 loss to top-ranked Duke that sent Big Blue Nation spiraling into shock and panic. It also seemed to shake up the players, who subsequently lost on a neutral floor to the same Seton Hall team that the Cards defeated on the Pirates' home floor a week earlier.
However, in its last two games –- an 88-61 victory over Utah in Rupp and an 80-72 win over North Carolina in Chicago –- the pieces seemed to have fallen into place for Calipari’s team. Maybe it’s a coincidence, and maybe not, but both those performances came after sophomore guard Quade Green left the team and transferred to Washington.
Considering that Mack has an outstanding recruiting class coming in next season, this may be the last time, at least for awhile, that UofL will be at a talent disadvantage against the Cats. But they are, despite their better-than-expected start, so the scenario going in is familiar to fans of both programs.
It no doubt hasn’t escaped Mack’s attention that UK outrebounded North Carolina, who came into the game as the nation’s rebounding leader, by 44-33. That means the Cards will have to work harder on the boards than they have at any time during the season.
The other noteworthy stat coming out of the UK-UNC game was that freshman guard Ashton Hagans had eight steals to tie the school record. That’s good news for a team that at times has been so eager to run and shoot that it seemed to forget that defense also was part of the game.
The Cats get good three-point shooting from freshmen Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson, and Johnson may well be the team’s best all-around player. However, the glue that holds it all together is 6-8 center Reid Travis, a senior who transferred to UK after an all-conference career at Stanford. Don’t be surprised if he gets UofL’s 6-foot-10 Steven Enoch, a transfer from Connecticut, into early foul trouble.
A pair of Kentuckians, 6-5 junior Dwayne Sutton from Louisville Manual and 6-6 Christen Cunningham, a transfer from Samford who grew up in Georgetown and played at Lexington Henry Clay, have been solid and sometimes spectacular for the Cards, and Ryan McMahon can shoot the three about as well as anybody on UK’s schedule.
The Cards' best player so far has been Jordan Nwora, the 6-7 sophomore with Nigerian roots. He’s a work in progress and figures to get only better. He’ll need to shoot well and be a force on the boards for the Cards to win.
Both teams have an enigma with which to contend. For UK, it’s 6-8 junior P.J. Washington whose play -- and attitude -- have been indifferent, at best, and for UofL it’s junior swingman V.J. King, who finally has been relegated to the bench after failing to consistently live up to his potential. His coaches say he’s his own worst enemy, putting too much pressure on himself.
The game should be much closer that it looked before the season started. The loudest and most animated Yum! Center crowd of the season should be a factor in UofL’s favor. So should Mack, provided he can get his team to play at just the right emotional level -- excited, but not so much that they make stupid mistakes.
Still, the Cats have the most talent, as they’ve had every season under Calipari, and as Pitino learned the hard way, talent has a way of winning out most of the time.
But what the heck. It’s about time something good happened in “The ‘Ville,” so let’s make it Cards 74, Cats 71 on a three-pointer by McMahon at the buzzer.
Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter who contributes regular sports columns to WAVE3.com.