Saturday's game between Kentucky and Louisville has been circled since last April when UK announced John Calipari as Billy Gillispie’s replacement.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino helped Calipari get his job at Pitino’s alma mater UMass, but there is no sense of loyalty between the two high-profile coaches.
They had a brief rivalry in Conference USA with Pitino at Louisville and Calipari at Memphis. But that has nothing on this.
Pitino, the former Kentucky coach, is still a legendary figure in the Commonwealth. He's the one who helped get the Wildcats out of the abyss of NCAA sanctions, won a national title in 1996, took the program to another Final Four the following year, and whose assistant, Tubby Smith, won another title in 1998 with Pitino's players.
Kentucky’s undefeated record, star power in players like John Wall, Patrick Patterson and DeMarcus Cousins, and the game being staged at Rupp Arena makes this even more of an event. Toss in Pitino’s sordid offseason soap opera of being extorted for an affair from six years prior, and the atmosphere should be one of the more heated of any game this season.
No one wants to talk about how much the other wants to win, pound the other team, but the intensity is palpable.
“Let’s be honest,’’ Calipari said. “We’ve got a good team. They’ve got a good team. It’s great for the Commonwealth and it’s great for college basketball. Let’s just enjoy it.’’
I was at the first game when Pitino returned to Kentucky after taking the job at archrival Louisville. The signs were nasty. You can expect the same Saturday at Rupp Arena.
On the court, this should top the North Carolina atmosphere from last month, which was deafening at times as the Wildcats tore through the Tar Heels after a bumpy start.
Louisville has guards who shouldn’t be rattled like Edgar Sosa and a big man in Samardo Samuels that can definitely move muscle with Cousins and Patterson. But not having Terrence Williams or Earl Clark means the Cardinals aren’t as experienced for a game like this. Injuries and a lack of maturity have shown through for the Cards in losses at UNLV and at home to Charlotte and Western Carolina.
Kentucky has been pushed at times, by Sam Houston State, Stanford and Miami (Ohio), and of course by Connecticut in Madison Square Garden.
But this game means much more.
“It’s like Duke and North Carolina,’’ Calipari said. “Name about five rivalries that people wait for the game where they’re marking the game, knowing what they’re going to do that evening. It will be the hardest game we play by far.’’
Calipari came to Kentucky to recruit, schedule and compete for national titles in much more of a mainstream manner. But he also came for the fanfare of coaching in games like Kentucky-North Carolina and especially Kentucky-Louisville. It only seems fitting that the first of the series between Pitino and Calipari is at home in Rupp.
“It’s what you dream about in coaching,’’ Calipari said. “It’s what you want your program to be. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing, this place is going to be nuts.’’
But in this instance it does matter. It’s Louisville. It’s Pitino. It’s Kentucky as a Final Four candidate and Louisville as a team that may have to muddle its way through the rugged Big East, unlike last season when it won the regular season and conference tournament title on the way to a No. 1 seed and an Elite Eight finish.
Louisville has had its run. Kentucky was down the past few seasons. Now things have turned. A Louisville win would certainly stun the Big Blue Nation that is feasting on a Cardinal win before the thrust of the SEC schedule begins.
“Louisville will play better than they have all year,’’ Calipari said. “They will make shots. We will get their best games. Our players know it’s an important game but it’s not life or death to them. They don’t realize how hard Louisville is going to come out.’’