A marquee win against a marquee opponent. But what does Saturday’s win really mean for our Kentucky Wildcats?
When you grow up a Kentucky basketball fan few things are more important than a win over Louisville – a Final Four or National Championship to name a few. But when you are talking an overtime win at Rupp Arena as the lower-ranked team, well, then little less than the Ten Commandments would be more important to Wildcats fans.
We need not bore you with a recap of Saturday’s victory over then #3-ranked Louisville because I’m sure you witnessed the fragile shell of Nick Richards vaporize, transforming into a mechanic, foul-drawing diety. I’m also positive you saw Ryan McMahon’s overtime prayer fall flat. And you definitely watched – if not felt – Ashton Hagans steal a ‘pick-six’ scoop and score delivering a two-handed slam that nearly blew the roof off of Rupp Arena.
Indeed, these are things that we could avoid talking about. We could opt for a more cynical approach, getting straight to the burning questions of whether the effort of Kentucky is here to stay or if Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery’s performance is sustainable. But, we won’t.
Because, damn, that win felt amazing.
It feels nice knowing that beyond all of the doubt, frustration, tribulations, and immaturity that so often characterizes Kentucky teams of this era, that we are the better than our neighbors down the road.
Try as they might – be the higher-ranked team, have home-court advantage, or even be the superior team on paper – Louisville is not as good. Or at least, there is no argument on the contrary.
Saturday’s 78-70 overtime victory over Louisville is the type of game that you never forget. It’s the type of game that makes you want to call your mother, your brother, and even your long lost cousin. The feeling is infectious. It consumes Kentucky fans like a drug. We must have it, and when we don’t, something is drastically wrong.
And that, Kentucky fans, is the state of the program right now. We own the Louisville Cardinals.
So what does this win really mean? I’ll repeat: we own the Louisville Cardinals.
The best part? It’s not even close.
Let’s begin with the fact that since John Calipari took the reigns of the Kentucky program in 2009, the Wildcats have won 11 of 13 meetings against the Louisville Cardinals. Calipari’s 11-2 record over Louisville is flawless against coaches David Padgett (1-0) and Chris Mack (2-0). His record is only sullied by UL’s cursed emeritus, Rick Pitino, who was only 2-8 against Coach Cal.
Despite the massive turnover of talent and precarious nonconference starts (much like this season) that John Calipari-led Kentucky teams have become accustomed to, the Wildcats have not forfeited a loss at Rupp Arena during his tenure (6-0 in that time with the last loss coming in 2008). In further, Kentucky is 4-1 when Louisville is ranked in the top-five and 7-1 when both teams are ranked.
In fact, the rivalry has become so lopsided that since 2010 Kentucky is a perfect 2-0 in post-season play, raking in wins during the 2012 Final Four and 2014 Sweet Sixteen against the Cardinals. The Wildcats even own a winning record at the KFC Yum! Center, Louisville’s home arena, with three wins and two losses in this time frame.
The most mind-boggling part is that Louisville is occasionally the better team, in the stat sheet, on paper, and oftentimes physically. However, in the last ten years, Louisville teams have been the higher-ranked team on four such occasions but only have one win to account for.
And if it was ever in doubt, as a decade of dominance winds to a close, it becomes increasingly clear that there was no better man for the job than John Calipari.
For starters, he embraces the rivalry of the commonwealth. Perhaps it started as a personal vendetta against supposed ‘friend’ Rick Pitino, nevertheless Calipari takes this game to heart – preparing his players mentally and physically for the dogfights that embody the Battle of the Bluegrass – and his record surely shows it.
Next, Louisville fans, and most of the country for that matter, truly despise him. Throughout his career, John Calipari has embraced their hatred in an almost ‘what-you-gonna-do-about-it’ manner. For a coach who usually is more need of a muzzle than your neighbor’s chihuahua, he has been exceptionally tight-lipped when it comes to the Battle of the Bluegrass, letting his record do the talking for the last decade.
Finally, he has added a mass on top of the evergrowing mound of dominance UK coaches have over their counterparts in red (or if you’re Rick Pitino, white). Since 1944 when Bernard “Peck” Hickman manned the helm of Louisville basketball, no Cardinals coach has garnered a winning percentage greater than .350%. Their winning percentages against the Cats’ are as follows: Hickman (.333%), Crum (.350%), Pitino (.294%), Padgett (.000%), Mack (.000%).
In that same time, Kentucky coaches are led by none other than the 11-2 record of John Calipari: Rupp (.666%), Hall (.500%), Sutton (.750%), Pitino (.750%), Smith (.600%), Gillispie (.000%), Calipari (.850%).
Yet, what Saturday’s win reveals is a truth shrouded in fiery accusations and false assumptions: the Wildcats’ dominance has extended from the hardwood to the turf in recent years. 2019 marks the first time in the modern era of the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry that one school has defeated the other in both basketball and football for two consecutive years.
In football, Kentucky has won three of the last four. Those victories come in at a combined 81 points, with the last two having an average margin of victory of 39 points. Meanwhile, on the hardwood, the Wildcats are identical, winning three of the last four, this time via a combined 50 points – with 2017’s cockeyed 90-61 final owning the largest margin of victory.
I’ll leave you with this, Kentucky faithful – we are the best and have been the best, but do not take this for granted.
Currently, Kentucky holds leads in lifetime head-to-head matchups in both the Governor’s Cup (17-15) and Battle for the Bluegrass (37-16). In a decade embroiled in failure and rebuilding, Kentucky football has maintained a .500% winning percentage (5-5) over the Cardinals – and at the risk of repeating myself – in that time our basketball team has asserted complete dominance with a .850% winning percentage (11-2).
Saturday’s victory is far more revealing than a memorable late-December win or March Madness resume booster. Saturday, we learned that times have changed. The University of Kentucky is the driving force. We are atop the mountain, with our neighbor redbirds looking up.
In the words of Eddie Sutton, we are the big brother. And Louisville? Well, “Louisville is like the little brother fighting for recognition.”
Our coaches and players are accountable now. This is the new normal.