Kentucky, Louisville rekindle rivalry
INDIANAPOLIS -- John Calipari sent Andrew and Aaron Harrison and three other freshmen to sit behind the microphones and answer questions about Kentucky’s upcoming Sweet 16 matchup against Bluegrass State rival Louisville.
Rick Pitino sent up seniors Russ Smith and Luke Hancock.
That, as much as the 70 miles that separates the schools, is the gulf between the neighbors who play Friday in one of the most important meetings in their long, colorful and not-so-friendly rivalry.
Eighth-seeded Kentucky plays the one-and-done game and won a title that way in 2012. Fourth-seeded Louisville goes for a more long-term approach and took home its own championship trophy last season.
"There’s so many arguments," Pitino said. "I think the best of all worlds, me personally, I would like to see exactly what football has."
Whether they stay a minimum of three years (football), one year (basketball) or something else, the issue of how athletes fit into a college campus was thrust into the spotlight by this week’s National Labor Relations Board decision that defined football players at Northwestern as employees.
Neither coach would bite when asked how they felt about the ruling. "Has nothing to do with this game, so I leave it alone," Calipari said.
But both are well aware of the business side of their game that fosters the tenuous relationships between players, coaches and schools. The one-and-done rule has been key in Calipari’s re-emergence as a Final Four coach over the last six years, and has weighed on the minds of other coaches, like Pitino, who don’t land the NBA-ready kids as frequently but often find themselves competing against them.
"I think we’re all playing the hand we’re dealt," Calipari said. "Kids are going on to the league from us and performing, and I’m proud of that. Would I like to have had them for four years? Yes. But I also like what’s happened for them and their families."
Calipari, whose 2012 title team came behind one-and-doner Anthony Davis, now of the Pelicans, saw the negatives of having to rebuild every year play out in stark detail this season. A starting lineup with five freshmen struggled with expectations, sharing, listening and handling criticism.
Now comes the payoff. Calipari has figured out how to get the most from the Wildcats (26-10) and, as a result, they are clicking. Aaron Harrison has scored 18 and 19 points in the last two games. His brother had 20 in Kentucky’s 78-76 upset over Wichita State. Yet another freshman, James Young, made a 3-pointer that gave Kentucky the lead in that game with less than 2 minutes to go.
"They had to hear how bad they were as players, how selfish they were, they’re not together, this isn’t a team," Calipari said. "Instead of separating, they stuck together. They kept believing in the staff and wanted answers, ‘How do we get this right?’ and they accepted answers."
Not that managing a more experienced roster, with seven players coming off a national title, has been all smooth sailing for Pitino and the Cardinals (31-5).
Pitino dismissed Chane Behanan in December for violating school rules. The focal point of last year’s title run, Kevin Ware, took a medical redshirt for more recovery on the right leg he snapped gruesomely during last year’s regional final, also in Indianapolis.
"I know everyone wants to talk about experience," Hancock said when asked about the differences between what a senior knows and what a freshman knows come this time of year. "But they’ve got six, seven, eight, nine, 10 guys that are going to play real hard. We have the same. It’s not going to be too big an advantage either way."
Since 1983, the teams have met in the regular season every year.
This season’s game was a 73-66 Kentucky victory that served as only a brief respite for the Wildcats, who sank from top-ranked team at the beginning of the season to out of the poll by March 10.
The Cardinals were hardly a finished product at the time, either. Like Kentucky, they’ve saved their best basketball for March. They won their conference tournament games by an average of 33, then figured ways to grind out ugly wins against Manhattan and St. Louis.
Pitino said he’s been in the state for 20 years -- first as coach of Kentucky -- "and the game, to me, has really only had difficult consequences for the loser twice."
No. 1 was the 2012 Final Four meeting, won by Kentucky. No. 2 will be Friday’s game.
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