With the exception of the 2012-2013 season, there’s no secret that John Calipari has had Rick Pitino’s number in head-to-head match-ups. Louisville has been dominant in recent years, as has Kentucky. Both with National Titles, Final Fours, conference championships, both coaches getting inducted into the Hall of Fame, and highly ranked recruited classes all in the last five years. Those are accomplishments any school would proud of to have, and that’s an understatement. Really, just read those accomplishments and think about how much success both programs have had in just the last five years. But for whatever reason, despite all that success and even having the better team in some of those years, Rick can’t seem to beat Cal.
For us fans, it’s frustrating. For the players, it’s white noise. But for Rick, I can only imagine. Rick is one of the most decorated coaches in history. He’s the only coach to take three different schools to a final four (UMASS and Memphis were both vacated for Cal so they don’t count), and in 2013 he became the first coach to win a National Title with two different schools. Those schools of course, Kentucky and Louisville. So there’s no denying that Rick is one of the best college basketball coaches in history. So why can’t he beat Cal? Some say Cal’s players are better, some say Cal is a better coach, and some say Rick just can’t beat his old school. While Cal may get better recruits, his team’s are not always better. Cal’s offense is the “dribble-drive” offense, which I could run with the 4th graders I coached last year. And really? Rick can’t beat his old school? Come on, Rick won in 2002, 2003, 2008, 2009, and 2012. There’s no big reason why the rivalry is in Cal’s favor, the ball just bounces that way sometimes.
This year is different. I said at the beginning of the year, this UK team very closely resembles their 2012-2013 NIT team. As expected, no member of BBN believed me, or maybe they just didn’t want to. But after losing to UCLA (who lost to Monmouth at home), and Ohio State (almost certainly NIT bound with 5 losses), BBN is definitely sweating. And they’re lying if they say they aren’t.
On the other side, we have our beloved Cardinals. With an impressive 10-1 record, the Cards’ lone loss came on the road against now #1 Michigan State by 4. Louisville led for over 30 minutes in that game, but just couldn’t seal the deal. It was a tough loss to swallow, but that game put the nation on notice that the Cards are for real.
As I said earlier, Cal is an excellent recruiter. But that doesn’t always translate to the floor, at least not immediately. For whatever reason, Cal thought that recruiting two point guards, while Tyler Ulis was still on the roster, was a good idea. It wasn’t. Jamal Murray has stolen the show, and is very impressive to watch. But starting three point guards causes problems on offense, those three players all play better WITH the ball. That means when one player is working, the other two aren’t as good. And that has shown. Skal Labissiere has been a total disappointment to this point, and no one will argue that. The staple that has made Calipari coached Kentucky teams so good is a dominant big man (ex: Demarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl-Anthony Towns). All the players I just listed were dominant on both ends of the court. And to this point Kentucky doesn’t have that this year. They also lack depth. But keep an eye on Jamal Murray, if the Cards don’t get him in check it’s anyone’s game.
Let’s take a look at Louisville now. Damion Lee and Trey Lewis are surpassing every expectation set for them. The grad-transfer duo is showcasing their ability, and leading this team. Quentin Snider is among the nation’s leaders in assist-turnover ratio. Donovan Mitchell and Ray Spalding are finally comfortable, and believe me it shows. Deng Adel is working his way back and will hopefully be ready for the game. All that’s left here is big man play (outside of Spalding). Chinanu Onuaku was projected by many to me a first round pick in the upcoming NBA draft. At times, he’s shown why that’s the case. At other times, he commits fouls that really make everyone collectively scratch their heads and ask “why?”. His post moves are significantly improved, his free throw percentage is up, and he looks unstoppable at times. But with the recent injury to Mangok Mathiang (damn injury bug never leaves us alone), Onuaku is going to have to stay out of foul trouble if the Cards are going to win in Lexington.
Louisville is looking for a signature win and a turning point in the rivalry. Kentucky is trying to shake the 2012-2013 NIT resemblance so BBN doesn’t hit the panic button. One team is looking to continue build, the other is looking stop the bleeding. It’ll be a great contest between two national powerhouses. My prediction is the Cards leave Lexington victorious, with a final score of 75-68. Damion Lee and Trey Lewis have solid performances, but the deciding factor is Chinanu Onuaku dominanting Kentucky’s bigs. Cal may have Rick’s number, but this year is different.