When UofL and UK met at Rupp Arena last year, it was the first time since 1959 that the two did so without a coach named Denny Crum or Rick Pitino on the sidelines. UK dominated, winning 90-61 — the worst defeat in the rivalry since 1999, when UK beat Louisville by 30.
The lopsided result also confirmed — both literally and figuratively — what we already knew: Something was missing from the greatest rivalry in college basketball.
For Louisville, it was missing a head coach. David Padgett filled the role on an interim basis and did an admirable job against tremendous adversity.
For Big Blue Nation, despite the opportunity to incessantly ridicule Cards fans, the absence of a competitive rival was… unsatisfying.
For college basketball as a whole, a meaningless UofL-UK rivalry game left a void.
Well, good news for all: Saturday’s UofL-UK game marks the first in a new era of the rivalry.
Let’s be clear, the nine years of emotional overload that was the Rick Pitino-vs.-John Calipari era will never be equaled. It’s possible the sport will never see two personalities as big as these two; much less two personalities with the long, storied rivalry they shared; and certainly not the blue-blood boiling sight of UK’s former-coach and savior going full-turncoat, to coach its bitter rival.
For starters, can we all acknowledge that this alone is better… for all of us? Wasn’t it getting a little out of hand?
Now, I’m sure UK fans will find ways to hate UofL’s new head coach, Chris Mack — just as they found ways to hate the delightful, Hall of Fame, former head coach, Denny Crum, who, outside of those horrid, old Coogi sweaters he used to wear, is impossible to hate — but he’s an eminently likable guy and won’t feed the UK blood-thirst the way Pitino did. And UofL fans will undoubtedly tell Calipari how they feel about him, legitimate criticisms or not, every minute he spends on the floor at the KFC Yum Center.
But this new era will finally, once again, be about the players. The coaching drama won’t be the nuclear fusion, fueling the emotion of this game.
Beyond the coaching drama, even UofL fans have to admit the rivalry had become a little one-sided over the last decade. In any sport, professional or amateur, for a matchup to be a true rivalry, it has to be competitive. Well, Kentucky has won nine of 11 games. And while the average margin in those games was a close, 6.7 points (excluding the 29-point outlier), the overall record says UofL was more of an obstacle than an equal.
That era is over.
Enter Mack, with a new system and style. Now, nobody can yet say Mack is a better coach than Pitino, or Calipari, or that he’ll one day end up in the Hall of Fame. But, for whatever reason, Calipari had Pitino’s number, and Mack is a whole new problem for Calipari to solve.
This is Mack’s first UofL-UK game, and he knows how much it means to the fans, the state and the players.
So what will happen this Saturday?
It will be one of the intensely close, stressful kind of games, when the outcome is in doubt with under four minutes left in the game.
I give UofL a slight edge for two reasons:
First, while it’s hard to find an emotional edge anytime these two get together, last year’s blowout loss is extra motivation for UofL, while the same, returning UK players have to have a slight overconfidence having beat these guys so badly last year.
Second, the strength of schedule to this point in the season favors UofL. The Cards have played a string of difficult, close games already this season, and found ways to prevail in some of those games. On the other hand, UK has played a much easier schedule and not done as well against its better opponents. And, coming into the KFC Yum Center will be the Cat’s first true road game of the season.
Oh, bonus prediction: The officiating will be awful. So bad, both fan bases will be hoarse yelling at the officials and each other about how bad it was.
One thing is for sure, though: It will be a lot of fun, despite the hoarse voice. •