Mark Story: At UK, Calipari has been master of rivals

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 27, 2012 

By my reckoning, there are three competitive bars a University of Kentucky men's basketball coach has to clear to be perceived as "succeeding."

1. Have teams consistently peaking in March, including making periodic visits to Final Four.

2. Win meaningful championships (SEC regular season, SEC tournament, NCAA tourney) with some regularity.

3. Win more than your share of games against the teams the UK fan base most loathes.

Which brings us to our state's annual men's hoops grudge fest, Kentucky vs. Louisville.

If the "experts" are right, Louisville and Rick Pitino are finally going to show Kentucky and John Calipari that payback can be hell (or swell, depending on perspective) Saturday afternoon in the KFC Yum Center. Should that prove so, it will end — or at least interrupt — what has been one of the great periods of "rivalry dominance" in Kentucky history.

For the teams UK fans most yearn to beat, John Calipari has so far put the "L" in "rivalry."

Billy Donovan has built Florida into the SEC men's hoops program that most consistently challenges Kentucky for league supremacy.

Under Calipari so far, Kentucky is 7-1 against Billy D. with two SEC Tournament wins.

Tennessee shares a border with the commonwealth. Back in the day, the Volunteers had a penchant for upsetting superior Wildcats teams, so UT has long been a foe that stirs the blood of many UK fans.

In the past three seasons, Kentucky is 6-1 against UT, including an SEC tourney victory.

The neighboring states of Indiana and Kentucky have long contested with each other over which is the best hoops locale. Bob Knight's adversarial past with UK spiced a long-standing antagonism.

Over Calipari's first three seasons, UK went 3-1 against the Hoosiers, including knocking IU out of the 2012 NCAA Tournament round of 16.

North Carolina is one of the few men's hoops programs whose heft of achievement allows it to look Kentucky square in the eyes. Head-to-head, UNC has often seemed to have UK's "number," as the Tar Heels lead the all-time series with the Cats 22-13.

Yet under Calipari, Kentucky is 3-1 against Carolina, including claiming a berth in the 2011 Final Four by taming the Tar Heels in the East Region finals.

Then there is Louisville.

In the here and now, there is likely no other rivalry in men's college basketball, including Duke-North Carolina, that burns with the white-hot fire of UK-U of L in the era of Calipari vs. Pitino.

As you have already read ad nauseam this week, Cal at UK is 4-0 against Ricky P. at U of L. That includes Kentucky's 69-61 victory over the Cards last spring in the first Final Four matchup ever between our state's marquee schools.

So against the five most-heated rivals that UK plays (or used to play) on a regular basis, Calipari is a staggering 23-4 going into Saturday's trek across I-64 to The Ville.

That will keep even the most demanding fan base in good spirits.

To put that in perspective, back when Pitino was overseeing a modern golden age in UK basketball in the 1990s, even he didn't fare so well against the teams Wildcats fans hated most. His record at UK against the Cats' top five rivals (same teams, but substituting Arkansas of the 1990s for Florida of the 2000s) was 31-15.

It's fascinating for a coach who has, so far, had his way with Kentucky's most despised foes that Calipari was so willing to let UK's annual series with Indiana and North Carolina lapse (though the latter is slated to resume next season).

Pitino as the Kentucky coach dominated Louisville, going 6-2 against the Cards and winning six of his last seven. Since he switched to red neckties from blue, the rivalry has not proven so convivial. Ricky P. has lost seven of his last nine games against Kentucky.

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

If Kentucky (8-3 and not overly impressive so far) were to go to Louisville Saturday and beat what appears to be the best U of L team (11-1) of Pitino's 12 seasons, it would be the most demoralizing dagger in the rivalry's modern history to the Cardinals.

Says here the youthful Cats will give a good account of themselves, but that No. 4 U of L will prove too experienced and too deep.

In a flip from what has been the script for Calipari at Kentucky in rivalry games, Louisville 75, Kentucky 67.

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

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