In just a few months, the roles have been reversed for this Saturday’s Battle of the Commonwealth between the Kentucky Wildcats and Louisville Cardinals. It was just 9 months ago when the teams battled in the Final Four and Kentucky held off a tough Louisville team to go 4-0 over their hated rivals in the John Calipari era. So much has changed since then, at least for UK. They lost their entire starting lineup from that Louisville game to the NBA and they lost their mojo thanks to a dreadful three day span in late November and early December.
Notre Dame exposed Kentucky’s lack of passion and effort while Baylor exposed their lack of shooting. And the Wildcats been teleported to the Gillispie era and have been doubted, unranked, and disrespected by the national media and pundits ever since. The Cardinals return most of the Final Four team and a certain amount of swagger from going 11-1 and having a #4 national ranking. And the game is at Louisville this year. Signs would point to it being payback time as a couple of national pundits have made Louisville about a 10 point favorite.
But with such expectations comes great pressure and for the first time in the Calipari era, Kentucky is not burdened with it. Now, the pressure switches to Louisville and the roles are reversed for this game. And this game has a dual purpose for Louisville fans. First and foremost, it is payback. And secondly, there is a feeling that if Pitino is ever to beat Calipari at UK, it has to be this year. Larry Glover explained this theory to Larry Vaught:
“If Pitino can’t beat Calipari Saturday then U of L fans will have to wonder if he ever will. Rick is 0-4 against Cal and 2-7 in the last 9 games against Kentucky. Plus, he’s not likely to win next either with the game at Rupp and Cal poised to bring in the best class ever That means the pressure is all on the Cardinals.”
And it is about at this time that we recall that Pitino is 0-7 in his last seven games against Kentucky coaches not named Billy Gillispie and that Pitino has yet to win a title while John Calipari breezed into to Lexington and did it in three seasons. So far, the Pitino legacy at Louisville is mixed with 2 Final Fours, but 2 NIT appearances, 3 first round NCAA flame-outs, 2 second round losses and one, big, messy sex scandal. A win over Kentucky will make everything OK in Louisville, at least until March. A loss to the unranked Wildcats and all hell will break lose in the Ville and an 0-5 record to Calipari will not set well at all.
Not that a Kentucky loss to Louisville will be met well in Lexington, but it will not be the end to the season. And I don’t buy into the hype that Louisville is 10 points better than Kentucky. As of now, Louisville has the better team but Kentucky still has the talent card. That talent has not gelled yet, but for most of the season, even against Duke, Kentucky has had the pressure on them and has been expected to win. Whether it is fair or not for a team this young is not the question. The fact that this is still the defending national champion has put a target on the young team that it was not ready to shoulder yet. Hence the fateful weekend in late November.
If not for that two game span in which Kentucky sleepwalked their way through games versus Notre Dame and Baylor, it seems that this would be a pretty even game. Both teams lost to #1 Duke (UK by 7 and UL by 5) and both teams were missing a starter in that game (UK – Harrow, UL – Dieng). And both teams had virtually identical games against Samford. And if you look at the national stat rankings, UK leads in a lot of areas, which may suggest that the lack of UK love is just all based on those two games and that this game may be closer than expected.
But now it’s time to take that bullseye off and put it on Louisville. Let’s see how they deal with the pressure and let’s see Kentucky finally take that weight off their shoulders and play like the best recruiting class in America rather than trying to carry the mantle for the NCAA Championship team that has departed. So far this season, there has been a lack of joy it seems. It’s time to have fun and play without abandon and embrace the underdog role.
No one expects Kentucky to win a game for the first time in three years and eleven game … so go for broke. Don’t overthink or over-react. Just use your God given talent, play as a team, and go with the flow. No one is going to argue that the talent meter still shifts to Kentucky and there is no pressure to win … so just take it to Louisville. If Kentucky can beat the pressure and win the rebound battle, they have a chance to pull off the upset.
It will be a brutal road test, but unlike the Indiana game last year, the Louisville crowd expects to win and win big. If Kentucky gets an early 8 point lead, they will take the crowd out of the game. That Indiana crowd last year did not know what to expect and would have rushed the court if they had lost to UK by just 8. So while this will be a brutal road game, it won’t be the same animal as in Bloomington.
Kentucky has performed pretty darn well in the pressure cooker the last three plus seasons. Let’s see how well the Cardinals do in the same situation.