EDITOR’S NOTE: Kentucky Insider is a new weekly column in which SEC Country will take Big Blue Nation behind the curtain for a peek at the pursuit of UK basketball’s ninth national championship.
LEXINGTON, Ky. — There is no denying that John Calipari vs. Rick Pitino elevated the Kentucky-Louisville basketball rivalry to new heights during the last eight years, making Cats-Cards as compelling and competitive as Duke-Carolina.
So now that Pitino is gone, dragged down and out by the bombshell FBI probe that rocked college hoops this summer, how will the showdown Friday (1 p.m., CBS) between UK and U of L feel? Almost certainly diminished.
While Pitino went just 2-8 against Calipari in the rivalry — and 6-12 overall against Kentucky — their battles always felt big. Most were. Both teams were ranked in seven of 10 Rick vs. Cal collisions. Three times, both were in the top 10. Twice, they met in the NCAA Tournament — the 2014 Sweet 16 and 2012 Final Four (both won by the Cats).
All but one of those games in the last eight years was decided by single digits, four of them by four points or fewer.
Kentucky launched its 2012 title run in the Cardinals’ home arena and went through them to win it. Louisville launched its 2013 title run in the Cats’ home arena and luxuriated in the fact that UK suffered a first-round NIT defeat that same season.
Kentucky got swift revenge with two rivalry victories the next season, including a come-from-behind upset of the Cards in an NCAA regional semifinal on the way to the 2014 championship game. What an absurd three-year run for the rivalry.
But it wasn’t just results that drove the uptick in intensity. It was the dynamic of Calipari vs. Pitino, former friends who got sideways years ago — although both swear that’s overblown — and clearly don’t like each other, even if Pitino joined Calipari on his podcast last year, and they tried to play nice.
The only thing Calipari seemed to enjoy more than beating Pitino on the court and the recruiting trail (see UK’s title-winning point guard, Marquis Teague) was taking thinly veiled shots at him and the Cardinals and then claiming everyone was reading too much into his comments.
“There’s no other state — none — as connected to their basketball program as this one,” Calipari said during a Big Blue Madness campout in 2011, “because those other states have other programs. Michigan has Michigan State … North Carolina has Duke. It’s Kentucky throughout this whole state, and that’s what makes this unique.”
Pitino was less subtle in 2015 when, after a bitter 2-point loss at Rupp Arena, he was caught on camera flipping the bird to a Kentucky fan who heckled him. Like most of the tawdry allegations that seem to follow poor, unwitting Pitino everywhere he goes, he denied that it was his middle finger.
But that kind of bitterness is what took Cats-Cards from a rivalry to a blood feud these last eight years. UK fans already hated Pitino, the man who had restored their own program to glory in the 1990s, for having the audacity to slink back to the state after failing in the NBA and coach that other program.
Pitino’s issues with Kentucky — to which he referred repeatedly as his “Camelot” — were many. He seemed wounded by the falling out of favor with Cats fans, and he eventually became obsessed with beating Calipari.
The man many had called a “Pitino clone” years earlier suddenly was casting an enormous shadow over Pitino from right down Interstate 64. Calipari could land another 5-star recruit faster than his rival could count to 15.
That seemed to reignite Pitino’s fire in recent years, perhaps driving him to that 2013 national championship but maybe also — and you could make a strong case for this — pushing him to take risks in recruiting that ultimately cost him his job.
Whether he knew about the plot to pay recruits, which the FBI uncovered, or the hookers in the players’ dorm, which a scandalous book by a raunchy madam revealed, he’s gone now. And he will be missed.
The Kentucky-Louisville game this year already feels like a letdown. That is in part because neither team looks particularly good right now — the Cats having fallen from preseason No. 5 to No. 16 and coming off an upset loss to UCLA, the Cards having plummeted from preseason No. 16 to out of the poll, a total of one top-50 win between them.
But it’s mostly because Pitino is gone and Calipari vs. David Padgett just doesn’t move the needle. To his credit, Calipari is still doing his part, out there trying to poke the enemy, intentionally mispronouncing Louisville and asking facetiously who UK beat in the 2012 national semifinal in the last two weeks.
“I still think it’ll be a high-powered, high-profile game that will be played at a really high level, intensity wise,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas told SEC Country last week. “Look, the rivalry was great before Calipari and Pitino even got there, and it’ll be great well after [they leave]. The game is bigger, the rivalry is bigger, than individuals.”
Maybe that’s true, but it sure doesn’t feel like it right now.