Mark Story: No pressure? Rick Pitino has plenty to lose against Kentucky

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 26, 2012 

  • Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday
    Where: LP Field in Nashville
    TV: ESPNews
    Radio: WBUL-FM 98.1; WLAP-AM 630; WWRW-FM 105.5

Rick Pitino sounded just this side of giddy on a Monday teleconference for Final Four coaches.

"When you love a team as much as I've loved this one, really these last two, it's nice to see them get a reward," the Louisville basketball coach said.

U of L's reward for making a surprise run to the 2012 NCAA Tournament semifinals is an intrastate Armageddon with No. 1 overall seed Kentucky (36-2). On New Year's Eve, the Cats escaped the plucky Cards 69-62 in Rupp Arena.

Listen to the national hoops talking heads, and the general consensus is that Pitino and U of L (30-9) are playing with house money when they face a Kentucky team heavily favored to capture the school's eighth NCAA title and first since Tubby Smith and the Comeback Cats in 1998.

Bear with me, and I'll explain why that perception is not entirely true.

What Saturday's matchup between Pitino's Cards and John Calipari's Cats does is give the Louisville coach a chance to completely flip the narrative on the last three seasons of the UK-U of L dynamic.

Since Calipari took the UK job, he's dominated Ricky P. in the back-and-forth, UK-U of L balancing act that is basketball in the commonwealth.

In the past three seasons, Kentucky and Calipari have won exactly 100 games. Louisville and Pitino have won 75.

In the past three seasons, Kentucky and Calipari have won 11 NCAA Tournament games. Louisville and Pitino have won four — all this year.

In the past three seasons, Kentucky and Calipari have beaten Louisville and Pitino head-to-head three times.

Since Calipari took the Kentucky job, he has signed 12 recruits rated five stars by Rivals. (That doesn't count Enes Kanter, who never played.)

In the same time frame, Louisville and Pitino have signed one five-star recruit — Chane Behanan.

Yet if Pitino and Louisville were to pin defeat on Cal and the favored Cats on college basketball's grandest stage Saturday, it changes the prism through which all of the above is viewed.

A Louisville win would make Pitino 5-0 against Calipari in post-season tournament games.

It would apply the "can't win the big one" label to Calipari's Kentucky tenure.

It would create a crescendo of questions about whether Calipari's heavy utilization of one-and-done freshmen can lead to a championship.

Contrary to Pitino's Saturday assertion, a Louisville win will not make Cats fans into bridge jumpers — but it would deeply demoralize the Kingdom of the Blue.

Mostly, a Louisville win over a Kentucky roster stacked with future NBA players would remind the basketball world of what amazing work Rick Pitino has done across his coaching career with overachieving underdogs.

Given the long, complicated and largely adversarial relationship Pitino has with Calipari, one wonders whether a Louisville win Saturday over Kentucky wouldn't be the sweetest of Ricky P.'s coaching life.

Yet, with all that, those who think there is no pressure on Pitino and Louisville Saturday are wrong.

With the Louisville fan base, there is one thing that can undo the feel-good emotions of a surprise run to the Final Four — losing there to Calipari and Kentucky.

In Jefferson County, the U of L-UK rivalry is a 7/52/365 war. The U of L fans and UK backers in Louisville are in each other's faces every day.

Pitino has not beaten a Kentucky coach not named Billy Gillispie since Dec. 27, 2003.

Ricky P. is 4-7 against UK as Louisville coach; Cards fans were expecting more like the 6-2 record Pitino turned in against the Cards when he was top Cat.

If UK wins decisively, it will remind U of L backers of what has been a clear talent discrepancy in favor of Cats over Cards since Cal arrived.

So the nation might look at Saturday's game and see Louisville as the underdog with nothing to lose. But inside the commonwealth, whichever team takes the 'L,' the other side's fans are going to drill the losing fan base forever. It will be especially brutal in and around Louisville.

That's why, even if there is more pressure on UK and Calipari Saturday, there is heat on U of L and Pitino, too.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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