This year’s Kentucky-Louisville college basketball rivalry features the elephant not in the room.
That would be you-know-who, Rick Pitino, former basketball coach at Kentucky, now former basketball coach at Louisville, who won’t be around for Friday’s 1 p.m. renewal in Rupp Arena.
For two decades, Pitino was a lightning rod on both sides of the spat. Winning a national title at UK, he bedeviled the Cards. Winning a national title with U of L, he bedeviled the Cats. Your view of Rick depended almost entirely on your school colors.
When an FBI investigation implicated Louisville in alleged wrongdoing, however, the school (finally) decided its coach was no longer worth the trouble. Thus our final image of Pitino in Rupp came two years ago when departing the floor after a loss, he appeared to discreetly flip the bird at a heckling fan.
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If Pitino’s divisive presence intensified UK-U of L hoops, his absence complicates it even more. Kentucky’s coach remains John Calipari, probably Pitino’s most heated (and hated?) professional rival. Calipari’s 2009 arrival at UK brought the two geographically but not personally closer. Both are too competitive to be much more than podcast buddies.
Now, for this season at least, David Padgett is running the Louisville show. Despite legitimate objections to Padgett’s elevation to the head of the table, the young coach has kept the fragile ship from sinking. Louisville is 10-2. Its two losses, at Purdue and at home to Seton Hall, were understandable. It appears to be improving.
In Quentin Snider, the Cards have a veteran point guard comparable to UCLA’s Aaron Holiday. (Uh-oh.) While UK does not have an in-state player on its roster, former Louisville Trinity star Ray Spalding has rounded into a formidable force for the Cards. He posted a double-double in the Cards’ win over Grand Canyon on Saturday.
After Donovan Mitchell exited to begin impressing the NBA, Deng Adel assumed the mantle of U of L’s best offensive threat. Yet, when it’s all said and done, sophomore V.J. King could end up being Louisville’s best all-around player. Padgett’s hope is that happens sooner rather than later.
Meanwhile, over at the Joe Craft Center, Saturday’s 83-75 loss to UCLA in the CBS Sports Classic robbed the merry from the Cats’ Christmas. Calipari’s club turned in its second consecutive worrisome defensive performance. After Virginia Tech averaged 1.130 points per possession in a UK win, UCLA averaged 1.167. Those are not Calipari-like numbers.
Against Virginia Tech, Kentucky played well enough offensively, and forced enough turnovers, to win. That wasn’t the case in New Orleans. UK shot just 42.6 percent. Quade Green missed six of his seven shots, including all four of his three-pointers. After drilling four three-pointers the game before, Hamidou Diallo missed four of his five three-pointers against the Bruins.
“We’re better than this,” said Calipari, a coach who has never relied on pure offensive firepower to win games.
Others, fans included, worry the Cats are not better than what they showed Saturday. There’s a growing weariness of the one-and-done model that surfaces these days after a Kentucky loss. Fans bemoan the constant turnover and reliance on freshmen. Or so they say.
Here’s the real question: Are fans upset about the one-and-dones or that this particular group of one-and-dones is maybe not quite as talented as previous groups? In every year since Calipari came to UK, he’s had at least one player go in the top seven selections of the NBA Draft. Three times, he’s had the overall No. 1 pick.
According to this year’s early mock drafts, only Kevin Knox is judged as a possible top-10 selection. (That could change, of course.) Meanwhile, Oklahoma has Trae Young. Duke has Marvin Bagley. Arizona has Deandre Ayton. Those are the freshmen stealing the headlines.
Don’t be fooled, however. Just because neither program enters at the height of its power, does not mean Friday’s matinee drama won’t be compelling. It’s Kentucky-Louisville, after all. It’s college basketball. It’s the same as it ever was.
And wherever he might be, whatever he might say, you can bet even Rick Pitino will be watching.
Louisville at Kentucky
1 p.m. (CBS-27)