When Kentucky and Louisville tip off at 2 p.m. on Saturday in the KFC Yum Center, the man who was the focal point of this basketball series for so long will be nearly 6,000 miles away. Rick Pitino will be preaching his hoops gospel to a professional team on the islands of Greece.
Yes, there’s a new spin to this dramatic series. Long gone, finally, is the lightning rod who played both sides of the street all the way back to 1989, first as Kentucky coach, then as Louisville coach, managing to get under opposition’s skin all along the way.
Even last season, after Pitino was fired in the midst of the FBI college basketball corruption investigation, Kentucky drubbed a visiting Louisville that was coached by a former Pitino assistant (David Padgett) and led by former Pitino players.
No more. Same book, new chapter. Cats vs. Cards is now John Calipari vs. Chris Mack, two terrific coaches without the personal history but with apparent genuine respect. Calipari says he told Mack he could win a national title at Louisville. Mack says he has worked Calipari’s camps.
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“He’s been awesome to me,” said Mack the day he was hired as U of L’s coach. “I look forward to the challenge of playing him.”
As for his first challenge, Mack has been Mr. Instant Impact. Expected to slog through a woe-is-us rebuilding year, the Cards are a surprising 9-3. They beat ninth-ranked Michigan State in overtime in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Their three defeats are all respectable. They lost by 11 to fifth-ranked Tennessee, in overtime to Marquette in New York and by a point to Indiana in Bloomington.
Jordan Nwora, a 6-foot-8 sophomore who played just 12 minutes a game last season, leads the team in scoring (17.8 points per game) and rebounding (8.5). He’s supported by a gaggle of transfers, old and new. Dwayne Sutton, by way of UNC Asheville, is second in scoring (9.7). Steven Enoch, via UConn, is third in rebounding (4.6). Former Henry Clay star Christen Cunningham, a grad transfer from Samford, starts at point guard.
Mack has fused the spare parts and holdovers into a unit full of pluck and persistence, befitting the coach’s personality. And the coach is no stranger to intense rivalry games. During his nine-year tenure as head coach at Xavier, Mack’s Musketeers went blow-for-blow with archrival Cincinnati in the city’s Crosstown Shootout. Sometimes, literally.
The 2011 renewal became better known as the Crosstown Punch-Out after the game ended in an actual on-court brawl. And just last December, Cincinnati Coach Mick Cronin had to be held back in the postgame handshake line over Xavier guard J.P. Macura allegedly trash talking Cronin during the Muskies’ 89-76 upset win.
Oh yeah, Mack’s record as Xavier coach against Cincinnati: 6-3.
Oh yeah, John Calipari’s record as Kentucky coach against Louisville: 9-2.
Cal was 8-2 vs. Pitino, including a Final Four win in 2012 and an NCAA Sweet Sixteen win in 2014. He’s just 2-2 at Louisville, however, including a 73-70 loss to the Cardinals in 2016, his last trip to the Yum Center.
This time around, Kentucky is coming off easily its best game of the season, an impressive 80-72 conquering of ninth-ranked North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic. With something to prove after being destroyed by Duke, John Calipari’s Cats were locked in from start to finish, toppling a Tar Heels team that handled fourth-ranked Gonzaga just the week before.
With eight steals, Ashton “Hail to the Thief” Hagans emerged as the school’s biggest defensive star since Josh Allen. Smooth swingman Keldon Johnson poured in 21 points. Grizzled grad transfer Reid Travis added 20. And sophomore PJ Washington came within shouting distance of a triple-double: 11 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists.
Can the Cats stack prime performances back-to-back? That’s the question. One among many, actually. How will UK handle a raucous Yum Center in its first true road game of the season? How will Louisville respond under its new head coach in the most emotional game of the season?
“It’s a big game,” Mack acknowledged last week.
This year it’s a big game with a new twist.
No. 16 Kentucky at Louisville
When: 2 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 9-2, Louisville 9-3
Series: Kentucky leads 35-16
Last meeting: Kentucky won 90-61 on Dec. 29, 2017, in Lexington.