Mark Story

Should UK fans be getting nervous about hoops game at U of L?

What does new Louisville coach think of John Calipari?

New Louisville basketball coach Chris Mack talks about his relationship with Kentucky coach John Calipari.
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New Louisville basketball coach Chris Mack talks about his relationship with Kentucky coach John Calipari.

For the University of Kentucky football program, the past week has gone as well as imaginable in the eternal struggle with archrival Louisville.

Last Saturday night at Cardinal Stadium, Mark Stoops and the Wildcats put the finishing touches on a nine-win season by applying a 56-10 bludgeoning to hapless U of L (2-10).

On Tuesday, one night after an in-home visit that included UK’s ace recruiter Vince Marrow and other Cats coaches, Ballard High School linebacker Jared Casey decommitted from Oregon amidst speculation he may ultimately pick the Cats. Kentucky may sign as many as four top high school players from U of L’s backyard in Jefferson County.

Then, on Wednesday, Jeff Brohm — the one football coach Louisville could have hired that would have immediately imperiled UK’s in-state recruiting standing — announced he was staying at Purdue rather than returning to his alma mater to replace the deposed Bobby Petrino.

Yet, before UK backers get too chesty about how well things seems to be going for Kentucky football at the expense of Louisville, they might want to consider how UK’s Dec. 29 men’s basketball contest at U of L is “setting up” one month out.

Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops talks to the media after his team defeated host Louisville 56-10 on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018. The Wildcats finished the regular season 9-3 and will play in a yet-to-be-determined bowl game.

To coin a phrase, “the total body of work” of new Louisville Coach Chris Mack’s Cardinals (4-2) in the month of November has been more impressive than that of John Calipari and Kentucky (6-1).

As a holiday season public service, we won’t remind Wildcats backers of the carnage left behind when UK played its only November game against a major opponent, the disastrous season opener against Duke.

Conversely, Mack and his rag-tag collection of Rick Pitino recruiting holdovers and middle-tier graduate transfers have been more than competitive in three contests against high-level competition (though obviously none as talented as Duke).

In the NIT Season Tipoff semifinals on a neutral court at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., Louisville put up a pretty good fight against then-No. 5 Tennessee before falling 92-81.

Two days later, in the same event’s third-place game, Louisville should have beaten Big East foe Marquette, but fell 77-74 in overtime after the Cardinals’ VJ King was unable to convert a follow shot at the rim at the end of regulation that would have won the game.

On Tuesday night at the KFC Yum Center, U of L gave Mack, the former Xavier head man, his first “signature victory” as Louisville coach with an 82-78 overtime win over Tom Izzo and No. 9 Michigan State.

It was a motley crew that led the Cards to victory.

Former Henry Clay Blue Devils standout Christen Cunningham, a graduate transfer from Samford, is averaging 8.6 points and 3.1 assists as Louisville’s starting point guard. Timothy D. Easley AP

The Cardinals got 24 points off the bench from junior Ryan McMahon, the lightly recruited 6-foot guard from Sarasota, Fla., that Dick Vitale implored Pitino to offer a scholarship.

Point guard Christen Cunningham, the ex-Henry Clay standout and a graduate transfer from Scott Padgett’s Samford program, had 13 points and five assists.

Hustling but undersized (6-5, 215 pounds) junior forward Dwayne Sutton, the ex-Manual High School star who transferred home from UNC Asheville, chipped in 13 points and six boards.

In Jordan Nwora, a 6-7, 225-pound sophomore, Mack appears to have a developing standout. The Buffalo, N.Y., product is averaging 17.7 points and 7.5 rebounds, while shooting 48.5 percent from the floor.

Jordan Nwora.JPG
Louisville forward Jordan Nwora (33), a 6-foot-7, 225-pound sophomore from Buffalo, is emerging as a Cardinals standout in 2018-19. Through six games, Nwora is averaging 17.7 points and 7.5 rebounds. Timothy D. Easley Associated Press

Behind Nwora, Louisville has eight players averaging between 6.3 points and 10 points.

On paper, Calipari and UK clearly have more talent than Louisville.

Cal still has a month before our state’s annual hoops Armageddon with U of L to “get things figured out.” History says Calipari is apt to do that. As Kentucky head man, Calipari is 9-2 against Louisville.

In the modern UK-U of L rivalry (since 1982-83), Louisville coaches have not had much luck against the Cats. Denny Crum went 7-13 against UK; Pitino was 6-12.

Last year, then-interim Cardinals head man David Padgett took a 90-61 pasting from UK.

At Xavier, Mack was a good “rivalry coach.” He went 6-3 against Cincinnati in what is one of the most heated annual series in college basketball.

As the coach brought to U of L to try to clean up the mess left behind from Pitino-era recruiting scandals, Mack finds himself in the same position a youthful Ricky P. was when he first came to the commonwealth as Kentucky head man in 1989.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari, right, shook hands with then-Louisville interim head coach David Padgett before UK’s 90-61 beat down of the Cardinals in Rupp Arena last year. Calipari is 9-2 against U of L as Wildcats head man. Mark Mahan

Then, Pitino was tasked with restoring Wildcats basketball following the downfall of the Eddie Sutton coaching regime amidst an imbroglio of NCAA violations.

Mack’s first Cardinals team has a chance to be in U of L lore what the Unforgettables era was at Kentucky.

That alone should likely make Kentucky fans a little bit wary of UK’s Dec. 29 trip to Louisville.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory


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Rick Pitino and Denny Crum
Hall of Fame Louisville men’s basketball coaches Rick Pitino, left, and Denny Crum did not have abundant success against archrival Kentucky. Crum went 7-13 against the Wildcats, Pitino 6-12. John Sommers II Lexington Herald-Leader