University of Louisville

Mark Story: Big win over Louisville makes Calipari's job easier

Kentucky's James Young (1) celebrated as Louisville called a timeout during one of UK's second-half surges in the Cats' victory over the Cardinals Saturday in Rupp Arena. Young's 18 points and 10 rebounds contributed to a barrage of big plays by Kentucky freshmen.
Kentucky's James Young (1) celebrated as Louisville called a timeout during one of UK's second-half surges in the Cats' victory over the Cardinals Saturday in Rupp Arena. Young's 18 points and 10 rebounds contributed to a barrage of big plays by Kentucky freshmen.

Here's the thing about being head men's basketball coach at the University of Kentucky.

When things are going well, it is the greatest job in the world. But when things veer off the tracks, when a coach's tactics, recruiting, philosophical approach — whatever it is — start being questioned, there are few tougher jobs in big-time American team sports.

Which is why our state's annual hoops Armageddon, Louisville in Rupp Arena visiting Kentucky on Saturday, was unusually important for UK Coach John Calipari.

For the first three years in which Cal patrolled the UK sideline, he had the best job in the world. Three Elite Eights, two Final Fours and an NCAA championship buy a coach a lot of leeway.

However, after last season's 21-12 collapse into the NIT, followed by three straight losses to ranked teams this year with a squad that began 2013-14 ranked No. 1 in the nation, there were questions beginning to bubble to the surface about Calipari's full-armed embrace of the one-and-done phenomenon.

Had No. 6 Louisville with its veteran roster rolled into Rupp and handed UK yet another big-game defeat, it would have made Calipari's record against ranked teams over the past two seasons 2-7.

After Calipari had seemed to have won the debate over whether a program so reliant on new players every year could consistently succeed, questions about whether that approach is the best way to build a program would have roared back to life if Rick Pitino had beaten Calipari on Saturday.

Which, of course, he did not.

Producing a much-needed signature victory in spite of playing most of the second half without cramping freshman star Julius Randle, No. 18 Kentucky (10-3) beat U of L (11-2) 73-66 before a rocking Rupp crowd of 24,396.

Kentucky's victory was won in the most "Calipari way" imaginable.

UK freshmen accounted for 85.2 percent (23) of the Cats' 27 field goals. Kentucky first-year players produced 56.8 percent (25) of UK's 44 rebounds. Wildcats frosh accounted for 87.7 percent (64) of the Big Blue's 73 points.

Randle was stellar in half one, producing 17 points and three rebounds. After his cramps benched him, fellow freshmen James Young (18 points, 10 rebounds), Andrew Harrison (18 points) and Aaron Harrison (10 points) would not let the Cats lose.

"I just didn't want to lose to Louisville," Young said. "And I didn't want to lose at home."

Afterward, Calipari tried to throw cold water on the pre-game narrative that this was a showdown between his new-school way of team development and Pitino's old-school way.

"All this stuff about doing it this way, doing it another way ... please stop," he lectured the media. "The 'Cal Way,' there's no 'Cal Way.' There's no 'Cal Ball.' (Players who are) young, old, ugly, pretty. It doesn't matter.

"This is about players as a team. This team is becoming a good team. We haven't been all year. Now, we're starting (to be)."

It's hard to imagine how Saturday's game could have gone any better for Calipari.

Unlike what happened down the stretch in UK losses to ranked foes Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina, Kentucky's freshman-heavy roster showed it could persevere through adversity against a top foe vs. Louisville.

After months of speculation that the Harrison twins would be frayed and fried by full-court pressure from U of L's smaller, quicker backcourt, the Kentucky guards came through big. UK actually committed fewer turnovers (11) than did Louisville (13).

"I thought the Harrisons were very much under control," Pitino said. "They handled pressure and didn't force things. They showed much more maturity than everybody was saying."

Forced to play without his star, Randle, with the game on the line, Calipari may have found his team.

"It does give us confidence to be in that situation without (Randle) and come through," Andrew Harrison said.

In the big picture, the victory also did more for Calipari than give him a 5-1 record against Louisville as UK head coach and a 10-9 mark against Pitino in the college part of their long, complex coaching rivalry.

What the UK victory did is forestall any kind of substantial debate within the Kentucky fan base over the "Calipari approach" with the one-and-dones and the yearly roster churn until, well, we see how the youth-laden Cats fare in 2014's March Madness.

Best of all for the UK coach, Calipari will wake up Sunday and his job will still be pretty darn great.


Kentucky 73, Louisville 66
Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader

  Comments