UK Men's Basketball

John Clay: Calipari winning seven of eight from Pitino no small accomplishment

Louisville Coach Rick Pitino sat quietly during the final minute of Saturday's game. Pitino has lost seven of his last eight games against Kentucky.
Louisville Coach Rick Pitino sat quietly during the final minute of Saturday's game. Pitino has lost seven of his last eight games against Kentucky. Herald-Leader

LOUISVILLE — Two decades ago there was not a Kentucky fan on Earth who thought Rick Pitino could lose seven of eight games to another basketball coach.

And yet that is exactly what has happened.

Only Rick Pitino is the coach at Louisville now.

John Calipari is Kentucky's coach.

Saturday afternoon at the KFC Yum Center, Calipari continued his mastery over the archrival up the road as the top-ranked Cats beat host Louisville 58-50 before a crowd of 22,812.

It marked the seventh time in eight games since Calipari came to Lexington that he has beaten Pitino.

He's beaten him in Lexington. He's beaten him in Louisville. He's beaten him in New Orleans. He's beaten him in Indianapolis. He's beaten him in the Final Four. He's beaten him in the Sweet 16.

Since Calipari became the Kentucky coach before the 2009-10 season, the only time he lost to Louisville was in 2012-13 when Pitino had his best team, a national title team, and Calipari had his worst team, a team that lost in the first round of the NIT.

Now Calipari has maybe his best team. Ever.

Yes, his 2011-12 Kentucky team won the national championship. It had Anthony Davis, currently on the fast track to becoming the best player on the planet. This Kentucky team may actually be better than that Kentucky team.

Saturday afternoon was another argument for present over past. Willie Cauley-Stein, UK's best player through the season's first dozen games, scored all of five points and grabbed six rebounds in his 23 minutes. Andrew Harrison, the UK point guard, committed six turnovers. Kentucky won anyway.

The game was grinding, physical, hand-to-hand combat basketball that saw the Cats commit 18 turnovers, compared to nine for Louisville. Kentucky won anyway.

It was the first true road test for a team that features four freshmen in prominent roles — one of whom, Tyler Ulis, scored 14 points, took an elbow that cut him open and was probably player of the game — making their first appearance in an intensely hostile environment. Kentucky won anyway.

It won the way this team has won each of its 13 games to this point, suffocating you with its defense. Louisville shot 25.9 percent from the field, the eighth team out of the 13 Kentucky has played to shoot less than 30 percent. That's a ridiculous statistic.

"I know one thing," said Pitino afterward, "they're one of the great defensive teams I've seen in my 40 years."

Here is something else ridiculous: Louisville was credited with one assist.

One.

"I've got a good team," said Calipari afterward as way of explanation.

Louisville is a good team, too, ranked fourth in the nation. And Rick Pitino is more than a good coach. He's a great coach. He's an unbelievable coach. He's a Hall of Fame basketball coach, a man who has won a pair of national championships.

Two decades ago, when Pitino was in the midst of a brilliant run in Rupp Arena, you could argue he was the best coach in basketball.

Now, he can't beat John Calipari. Not since Calipari became Kentucky's coach, anyway. Why? It says here that if Pitino coaches a team like few others, Calipari builds a team like no other, which is maybe the most important part of being a coach.

Calipari recruits better than any other coach, then, through motivation and psychology and pure force of will, finds a way to get those superstar recruits to play together, to share together, to defend together.

In the media room, well after the game Saturday, Calipari was pontificating about his most recent point of emphasis.

"I don't want arrogance, I want a swagger," said the coach. "Arrogance is not earned. A swagger is; you have demonstrated performance."

Saturday, for the seventh time in eight tries, a John Calipari team demonstrated its mastery of a Rick Pitino team.

Now tell me if you ever thought that was possible.

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