John Clay: Kentucky a big favorite, but don't count out Pitino

jclay@herald-leader.comDecember 31, 2011 

Rick Pitino can talk about the precious present until his face turns red.

But to the Big Blue Nation, it's all about the future and the past.

That would be, with John Calipari at the helm, what it sees as Kentucky's promise of a glorious future.

And for Louisville, it's all about Rick Pitino's glorious past, i.e. his Kentucky past.

Saturday's high-noon showdown at a rabid Rupp Arena marks year three of the Calipari-Pitino era of the UK-U of L basketball rivalry.

And, basically, the series hasn't budged an inch from the first year the former Memphis coach assumed the diamond-studded reins of the then-wilting Wildcats.

This year, as was the previous two years, Calipari is the coach with the stacked deck of talent. Pitino is the coach in the unenviable position of playing catch-up.

It has been well-documented that the two are not the best of friends. Calipari admitted Friday they do not send Christmas cards. No doubt Pitino avoided a pre-game news conference as to not listen to queries about their relationship.

The two are too much of the same kind to get along.

"We both have been to three Final Fours. We've both got fired in the NBA. We're both Italians with big noses," cracked Calipari on Friday when confronted with such amateur psychology, while adding he thought the two had a cordial relationship. "But we're right on top of each other."

They are both spin-meisters. They are both showmen. They are both fanatical competitors. They are both impulsive to the point where clarifications are a regular necessity.

One more thing: They are both darn good basketball coaches.

Yet, with UK holding a two-game series winning streak, and with the Cats a 131/2-point favorite to make it three in a row, there is this general consensus Calipari's best coaching days are ahead of him, while Pitino's may be in his rearview mirror.

It's a mirror Pitino himself set back in 1996-97 when he left his "Camelot" for the green — and we don't mean team colors — of the Boston Celtics.

Truth be told, the coach has been trying to replicate his outrageous Kentucky success of one title and three Final Fours ever since.

Now, at age 59, and given his comments this week he won't coach past 2017 — comments he amazingly told Dick Vitale were taken out of context — he's closer to a coach striving to make one more Final Four run before he hangs up his golden whistle.

If Pitino thought he was recapturing his past by returning to the state, though to a different school, that hasn't happened either. His 10 years at Louisville resemble Tubby Smith's 10 years at Kentucky — one Final Four, three Elite Eights — but without the NCAA title.

Let's not get carried away here. Pitino is still a terrific coach. Coming off a tough loss to visiting Georgetown on Wednesday, Louisville will be ready to — to use a Ricky P. phrase — overachieve. That point spread coming out of Vegas feels a tad on the high side.

But it's Calipari who is holding the cards. Kentucky has the home court, the confidence and the more-skilled starting five. It all has such a retro feel to it.

Calipari is doing now what Pitino did back when — combining his recruiting skills and coaching savvy with the program's tradition and passion to form a lethal weapon.

Since becoming the Louisville coach in 2001-02, Pitino has coached four players who went on to become first-round NBA Draft picks.

Calipari produced five first-round picks his very first season at Kentucky.

He's produced two more since.

He may have four more on the floor Saturday.

In the real rift between Rick Pitino and John Calipari, that is the precious present.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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