Mark Story

With Chris Mack, can U of L finally steal UK’s rivalry joy?

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.

Whatever the outcome of Saturday’s Kentucky-Louisville men’s basketball Armageddon, Chris Mack will make history at the KFC Yum Center.

The new U of L head man will, amazingly, be the first coach from either school in the modern history (since 1982-83) of the Wildcats-Cardinals series to make his rivalry debut in Louisville.

Famously, Kentucky’s Joe B. Hall and Louisville’s Denny Crum commenced the modern Cats-Cards rivalry in the 1983 NCAA Tournament round of eight. The “Dream Game” was played at Stokely Athletic Center on the campus of the University of Tennessee.

U of L’s 80-68 overtime victory in a contest filled with entertaining ebb and flow was so compelling, it led to an annual series between the intrastate foes starting the very next season.

So both UK’s Hall and U of L’s Crum coached their first regular-season Cats-Cards game in Rupp Arena to begin the 1983-84 season.

That set a pattern.

Among subsequent Kentucky coaches, Eddie Sutton also entered the rivalry in Rupp in 1985-86, as did Rick Pitino (1989-90), Tubby Smith (1997-98), Billy Gillispie (2007-08) and John Calipari (2009-10).

Louisville has experienced fewer coaching changes, but when Pitino launched his “red period,” he, too, first faced Kentucky in Rupp Arena in 2001-02.

After Pitino’s Louisville tenure imploded beneath a series of program scandals, David Padgett had his one UK game as Cardinals interim head man in Rupp, too, last season.

padgett and calipari
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

Louisville backers will hope the fact Mack will break this pattern by coming into the Cats-Cards series in The Ville portends other changes in rivalry fate for U of L.

To put this simply, Kentucky has thoroughly dominated the modern basketball rivalry with Louisville.

The Wildcats are 26-13 against the Cardinals since 1982-83.

Over that time, Louisville has never beaten Kentucky more than two years in a row. Conversely, UK’s Calipari (9-2 vs U of L as top Cat) already has two distinct, four-game winning streaks vs. the Cardinals just himself.

In four modern (since 1983) NCAA Tournament meetings between Cats and Cards, UK has prevailed three times, including in the 2012 Final Four and 2014 round of 16.

Though Crum memorably won the 1983 NCAA tourney meeting vs. UK, he went 7-13 overall (35 percent) vs. Kentucky.

Pitino fared even worse vs. the Cats. Once he crossed the rivalry line, Ricky P. went 6-12 (33 percent) as U of L coach against UK.

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

Poor Padgett absorbed a 90-61 bludgeoning last season in his lone go against Kentucky as Louisville head man.

So, for Mack, the rivalry bar is not high. If he could just break even against UK, it would be a massive improvement over what his immediate U of L predecessors have managed.

During his prior gig as Xavier coach, Mack had a strong rivalry resume. In the Crosstown Shootout vs. Cincinnati — one of the more heated college hoops series in the country — Mack led the Musketeers to six wins in nine games with the Bearcats.

Interestingly, UK may have provided Mack a boost in getting off on the right rivalry foot with the way Kentucky scheduled entering Saturday’s game.

In what is probably the least surprising statistic in American sports, UK in the Calipari era is 3-6 in its initial contest each season on a foe’s home court. For a program that essentially fields a brand new team heavy with freshman guards every season, that is not shocking.

Louisville on Saturday will be Kentucky’s first true road game of 2018-19.

It is the third straight time that U of L in the Yum Center has been UK’s initial away game.

Four years ago, the 2014-15 Wildcats that began their season 38-0 struggled to a 58-50 win at U of L in their initial road foray.

Two seasons back, the 2016-17 Cats, led by freshman stars De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo, took a 73-70 loss at U of L in their first game on an opponent’s home floor.

De'Aaron Fox
Two seasons ago, Louisville and point guard Quentin Snider, top, had the upper hand on Kentucky and point guard De’Aaron Fox, bottom, in U of L’s 73-70 win over UK at the KFC Yum Center. Adam Creech

If you are wondering what difference having a road game under a team’s collective belt can make, Kentucky is 7-2 in the Calipari era in its second away contest each season.

First-time head coaches have not fared well in modern Cats-Cards tilts.

New UK coaches (not counting Hall) are 2-3 in their initial meetings with U of L — Sutton and Calipari won; Pitino, Smith and Gillispie lost.

New U of L coaches (not counting Crum) are 0-2 in their initial meetings with UK — Pitino and Padgett both absorbed blowout losses.

On Saturday, Chris Mack gets his first chance to flip the script of Kentucky head-to-head superiority over Louisville that has been the prevailing storyline of our state’s marquee men’s college hoops rivalry for decades now.

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a H-L sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.