UK Men's Basketball

Mark Story: Cats-Cards a chance for Cal to match Pitino

Kentucky Coach John Calipari produced seven first-round NBA Draft picks in his first two seasons here, and he might have four more this season.
Kentucky Coach John Calipari produced seven first-round NBA Draft picks in his first two seasons here, and he might have four more this season.

For major college sports coaches, job one is to beat the school your fans hate the most.

When Kentucky and Louisville tip off the 2011-12 renewal of our state's annual basketball grudge fest at high noon on New Year's Eve, both UK backers and U of L supporters will have that team in Rupp Arena.

Which is why, for Rick Pitino and John Calipari, this game means more than any other non-NCAA Tournament game their teams will play.

Which coach needs victory more?

From the time Calipari was introduced as the Kentucky head coach on April Fool's, 2009, he's had the upper hand in the non-ceasing back-and-forth with Pitino that is college basketball in the commonwealth.

Calipari has signed the higher-ranked recruits, and more of them. During his time at Kentucky, Cal has already inked 12 recruits rated five star by Rivals (not counting Enes Kanter). Over his entire tenure so far at Louisville, Pitino has signed six such players (not counting Sebastian Telfair).

In the most fiercely contested UK-U of L head-to-head recruiting battle since Rex Chapman, Calipari targeted a player coveted by Louisville, Marquis Teague, whose father had played for Pitino at Boston University.

After an all-out recruiting throw-down, Cal beat out Ricky P. for the point guard's signature.

Since Calipari came to Kentucky, the Cats have won 76 games (versus 13 losses). In the same time frame, Pitino and Louisville have 57 victories (and 24 defeats).

At UK, Calipari has seven NCAA Tournament wins. In the same time frame, Pitino has nada Big Dance victories.

Which is not to suggest Calipari doesn't have much on the line Saturday.

He is, of course, 42-0 as Kentucky head man in Rupp Arena. You can bet Cal would rather get a root canal, an IRS audit and visit the proctologist — on the same day — than let Pitino be the first coach to put the "L" in Cal against Kentucky in Rupp.

In the manic-depressive existence of Kentucky basketball, an upset loss to Louisville so soon after an unexpected defeat at Indiana can make the waters choppy for even a popular UK coach.

For Pitino, how much would he relish coming back to the school where he did the best work of his coaching career — into the arena where a retired jersey in his honor hangs in the rafters — and put the first defeat on Calipari as UK coach in Lexington?

(Ricky P. has beaten Cal in Rupp Arena in a college game. On Dec. 4, 1991, Pitino-coached Kentucky defeated Calipari-led Massachusetts 90-69).

Don't you think Pitino would find unique satisfaction if his signature full-court pressure could rattle Teague, the guard he long expected to be wearing red and black, and that played a huge role in a Louisville upset?

Mostly, Pitino has to be sick of playing second fiddle to Calipari, a coach with whom he has a long, complicated and (mostly) adversarial relationship.

Pitino needs to win Saturday the most.

Can he get it?

Depends on three "T's."

1.) Can the Cardinals force Kentucky into turnovers?

Teague has committed 14 (against 12 assists) in his last three games. As a team, UK has had 17 turnovers twice in the last five contests and at least 16 miscues five times in 13 games.

2.) Can U of L make three-pointers?

Long the great equalizer for Pitino-coached teams, this year's Cardinals are hitting only 32.1 percent from three-point range. They'll need better than that Saturday.

3.) Which Terrence Jones will show up?

Since halftime of the North Carolina game, the Kentucky sophomore forward has shot 6-for-19 from the floor, 1-for-4 from the foul line and committed 12 turnovers. He also sat out two games (and missed most of a third) with a dislocated finger.

If Jones returns Saturday to early-season form (17.5 points a game, 7.5 rebounds on the season before his slog through Indiana), Louisville's chances recede dramatically.

But if Jones again struggles, things could be interesting.

For the coaches, a Kentucky win Saturday would tie the college version of the Calipari-Pitino personal rivalry at 8-8.

When Ricky P. was at UK and Cal at UMass, it was 4-1 Pitino.

During the time of Pitino at Louisville and Calipari at Memphis, things stood 4-4.

With Calipari at Kentucky and Pitino at U of L, Cal leads 2-0.

In regular-season games, Cal leads 7-4; in post-season tournament games (conference and NCAA), Pitino is 4-0.

Bottom line: Pitino needs it most, but it says here Cal is even-steven head-to-head as a college coach with Ricky P. after Saturday.

Kentucky 84, Louisville 71.