John Clay

John Clay: Pitino rising to Calipari's challenge

A lot has happened in a year.

It was all new back on Jan. 2. It was new to us, anyway, this John Calipari-Rick Pitino rough-relationship stuff, from former friends to friendly foes to not-so-friendly foes to bitter rivals. It was Pitino's ninth season as Louisville's coach, but it was Calipari's first year as coach at Kentucky, the job Pitino had once held and abandoned.

Kentucky was ranked third at the time of last season's UK-U of L game in Rupp Arena. Louisville was unranked. Rankings held. Kentucky won 71-62, though not without a fight. Almost literally. Afterward, Pitino wore a red scarf to the post-game news conference. The color scheme suggested symbolism. Pitino probably considered it Cardinal red, but it felt blood red.

A year later, Kentucky retains the upper hand. UK is ranked 11th; U of L is 22nd for Friday's New Year's Eve ball-drop at the KFC Yum Center. Yet the gap is not as wide as originally anticipated.

Calipari is dealing with the hardest task in American sports. A credible second season is always difficult after a dazzling debut.

Cal's first Blue go-around ended 35-3. It boasted John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson and Eric Bledsoe. UK heard its name called by teams drafting 1, 5, 14, 18 and 29 in the NBA's first round, on a day Calipari called the "greatest in school history."

It wasn't, of course. After hitting all the right notes in his first year, that Cal hyperbole fell flat. Final Fours matter to the Big Blue Nation. Titles matter most. And Calipari's youth movement came up short, losing to West Virginia in the Elite Eight. The Cats missed a brick load of three-pointers. They were bothered by a 1-3-1 zone. They played their age. They went pro.

Now, Calipari II feels like starting over, only without quite the star power. Brandon Knight is terrific. When locked in, Terrence Jones is an elite talent. Doron Lamb is instant offense. But Kentucky's true rookie star, its John Wall equivalent, sits the bench, with a seat belt.

Free Enes has lingered into Forever Enes. The NCAA doesn't go by a watch, or a calendar. With Kanter in limbo, a feeling of uncertainty permeates this year's Kentucky team. It's unavoidable.

Meanwhile, the Ville boasts a feeling of unexpected optimism. The Cards are 11-1. They are running, pressing, scoring, doing things Pitino's teams did back when he was "A Man Possessed."

Now, Pitino appears driven to prove critics idiots. It has been a tough year for the coach, highlighted by the summer trial that exposed the embarrassing details of his sex scandal. But as a business problem, there was also Calipari down the road, rejuvenating the program Pitino himself once rejuvenated, signing talent Pitino currently coveted.

But the Big Blue Nation's gleeful wish that Traitor Rick fade into the darkness hasn't come to pass. Pitino played it smart. He hired Tim Fuller, a new assistant with Nike connections, to spearhead recruiting. He fed off the gleam of U of L's new hoops palace. He dialed back to a style that made the game fun again.

That doesn't mean Louisville is the real deal again. Its diet has been too pastry-driven to know whether it has the muscle to beat a Kentucky. Calipari might not be quite the Big Blue sensation he was a year ago — with the rules of gravity, how could he be? — but the UK coach still boasts the superior roster.

Instead of Calipari pushing Pitino aside, however, he's pushed him to get better.

A couple of weeks ago, the U of L coach gave an interview to Dime Magazine online in which he said that under Calipari, Kentucky has "raised the bar, so to speak."

This past year, the bar has been raised on both sides.

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