LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – For a good while, probably since John Calipari took over as University of Kentucky basketball coach, the rivalry series with the University of Louisville has been on the sidelines. In more ways than one.
From March 26,1983 (when Louisville won the one and only Dream Game in overtime in Knoxville, Tenn., for a trip to the Final Four) through 2009, the teams played 28 times. Kentucky won 17. Louisville won 11.
In the literal sense, that’s where the drama resided. Rick Pitino and all his Kentucky (and Calipari) issues. Not showing up for the postgame news conference at Rupp Arena. Leaving for the last time with a one-finger salute. Calipari brought a ready-made personal rivalry with Pitino from Memphis, then started talking about Kentucky basketball being all there is in the Commonwealth.
And the rivalry has taken to the sidelines a bit because of Kentucky winning. And winning. And winning. Nine times in 11 games since Calipari took over he has beaten Louisville, including twice in NCAA play. And one of those U of L victories, let’s not forget, was vacated, relegated to the NCAA’s cutting-room floor.
For those reasons and others, this is a rivalry in need of a remake. Certainly last season’s 90-61 thrashing by Kentucky did nothing to say otherwise.
So it falls to Louisville and Chris Mack to refashion this rivalry that Mack quite deftly called, “the best nonconference game in the entire country.”
Taking a back-door cut on Duke-North Carolina and many other high-profile games, Mack cast the rivalry in lofty terms from the outset. He knows what a rivalry is. As a veteran of many Xavier-Cincinnati clashes, he knows what an ugly rivalry is. And he already has gotten a taste of this one.
“You’re driving on the Watterson (Expressway) and Gene Snyder and see that Big Blue plate, you just keep staring straight ahead. Or you hit him from behind. Just kidding,” Mack said. “At least from our end, there’s a ton of respect. We know how talented and well-coached they are.”
Mack needs to make this a competitive rivalry from the outset of his tenure in Louisville. Denny Crum saw Kentucky as a target and took dead aim. And it looks as if Mack might have the team to be able to do that, which is more than most would’ve said before the season. Back then, given Kentucky’s perennial great expectations and the deflated appraisal of Louisville’s prospects, a repeat of last season’s lambasting probably wouldn’t have been deemed out of the question.
But the way Kentucky has limped at times this season against some lesser competition, combined with Louisville’s ability to hang with and, in one case, beat, Top 10 competition, had the opening point spread in Las Vegas at a single point in favor of Kentucky when betting opened on Friday. As of midnight, it was at 1.5 points for the Wildcats.
Whatever has gone before, Mack brings no baggage into this rivalry. And for whatever Calipari has said that might tick off Louisville fans, he also has been respectful in the face of the program’s fall. He has rejected the urge to needlessly needle the fan base. He has offered an olive branch to Rick Pitino. He offered support to David Padgett. And he voiced little but respect for what Mack has done so far at Louisville.
“I know him, but I don’t think I have (coached against him). I don’t believe so,” Calipari said. “I haven’t, but he’s a terrific coach. What he did at Xavier and how he did it, the kind of kids he did it with – tough. Getting the whole culture of, ‘We’re going to play hard. We’re going to compete. We’re going to play unselfish.’ He’s done that, he’s done it now and in short order he’s got those guys playing good.”
Across the way in Louisville, somebody asked Mack if he watched Kentucky’s season-opening loss at Duke, as if that might provide him some solace. Mack could only answer by excusing Kentucky’s play as early jitters, and noting that he’s glad his team doesn’t have to play Duke (it does).
Mack doesn’t have the history with Kentucky that Rick Pitino had. Hatred might be a part of the fan equation, but it isn’t part of what the team is dealing with. He thinks the emotions will take care of themselves, not just because it’s a big game, with the national media watching, but because a good many of his players experienced last season’s blowout. He won’t mention that game, he said. Because he doesn’t think he needs to. He wasn’t here. It was a different team. But there’s one more reason.
“As a player, if you haven’t internalized that, and thought about that 90-61 ass-whoopin’, I don’t want you on my team,” Mack said.
Still, Mack faces a challenge. Every player in Kentucky’s starting lineup is better than his opposite number from Louisville, or at least, more highly rated. Kentucky could really use a guy like Jordan Nwora, but other than him, I’m not sure if Calipari would pluck any Louisville player in a draft.
“Every guy out there is a 5-star,” Mack said. “Every guy out there was as highly recruited as everybody in the country. . . . Against North Carolina, (Kentucky guard Ashton) Hagans was the best player on the floor and it didn’t have anything to do with his scoring. He dominated the game with defense. . . . They’ve got a Top 10 draft pick (Keldon Johnson). . . . So yeah, I’m have some concerns outside of their post players.”
The game doesn’t set up particularly well for Louisville. Kentucky is good in the post and quick and talented on the perimeter. Kentucky’s biggest weakness, turning the ball over, doesn’t really play into what Louisville does defensively. Kentucky’s rebounding strength is a major concern for the Cardinals. And while the Wildcats have given up a bunch of threes, Mack said that stat is skewed because threes were all some of Kentucky’s weaker opponents could get off.
“It’s the biggest challenge we’ve faced all year,” Mack said. “Them and Tennessee would be on fairly even ground. Some teams have good bigs but won’t use them the way we’ll see them tomorrow or the way we saw against Tennessee. And we didn’t pass that challenge against Tennessee.”
So what could help reboot this rivalry for Louisville. A win, of any kind, of course. But even without that, to see a team playing its best without some kind of intangible basketball block against the Wildcats would be a start.
With his team down eight to Kentucky in the NCAA Mideast Regional on Friday, March 13, 1959, in Chicago, Louisville coach Bernard “Peck” Hickman challenged his players, saying they were being intimidated by the “Kentucky” on the opposing team’s uniform. He urged them to just play their game, and when they did, upsetting the Wildcats, Hickman said, “This might’ve happened a lot sooner had Kentucky played us during the regular season.” That wouldn’t happen for another 24 years.
But even then, Hickman noted something knocking off the focus of his players. Mack, at the very least, has nothing hindering his own focus. He’s not over-selling the game to his players.
“We just have to get players ready to play,” he said. “As prepared as we possibly can. We know the challenge ahead. If you ask if I’m worried about controlling emotion, I really don’t, it’s just channeling it the right way.”
The Cardinals hope they can channel this rivalry in a more competitive direction. With a team that has played well at home this season against a Kentucky team that hasn’t played a true road game yet, at the very least it’s more of a possibility than anyone thought it might be when the season started.
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