By Ira D. Combs
Tri State Sports Media Service Inc.
The time of year has arrived once again for the annual battle between the two flagship universities of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, that is, as far as basketball goes. You, my loyal readers, can decide on which institution has the best medical and law schools, library, cheerleaders, or academics in general.
The best men’s basketball team is settled on the court and this year it’s played in the River City at the KFC Yum! Center (Saturday, 2:00 p.m. on ESPN2), which is of course the home of the Cards but I’m betting 1,000 or so of BBN find a way inside.
Obviously, an "NCAA tourney March Madness" setting like we’ve had a couple times in recent years adds a little more flair to this matchup but with Louisville at No. 4 and UK No. 1 at the present time, it doesn't get much better for a regular season encounter, especially when both are undefeated and UK getting tabbed by many national college hoops gurus as the first team with a chance at going undefeated since the Bobby Knight-led Indiana Hoosiers of the 70s.
Many think this Saturday could possibly be the last true chance a team has of beating UK before March Madness kicks in the Spring. To date, UK has plastered its opponents by an average of 28.9 points per game with two especially impressive beat downs to Kansas (by 32 points) and last Saturday against UCLA (40 points).
It doesn’t take any mental heavyweight to enter a top-ranked 12-0 Kentucky team with its present resume into a lively discussion of a possible perfect season. But make no mistake absolutely nobody between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans would love to derail that conversation more than one Rick Pitino.
Pitino by coming back to Kentucky from Boston in 2002 truly thought he would be loved with open arms and adored by the entire Commonwealth for what he had done when he rebuilt UK to the glory days of championship-level basketball. Only one problem: he established roots this time in Louisville and took over the reins of UK’s most hated rival, Louisville Cardinals. Remember, for many years, UK coaches Adolph Rupp and Joe B. Hall didn’t even want to play U of L and didn’t until some state-level politicians became involved in the 80s. Many old-time UK insiders claim that was the first straw that put Joe B. Hall thinking about an early retirement.
I’m scrambling around here folks at least with the annual calendar, anyway. Fast forward to 2002, all of a sudden Big Blue Nation was expected at least in Pitino’s mind to accept one of their own to rebuild a sinking Louisville program. That didn’t happen and won’t ever happen as long as there is at least one member of Big Blue Nation still breathing. To be trite it’s been a stormy affair between Pitino and the extremely large UK fan base since he resurfaced back to what he now calls home.
To be honest Pitino has showed UK some love on several occasions since he’s been at Louisville. On more than one occasion in a media setting, he has admitted leaving UK was the biggest mistake of his coaching career and don’t forget his many times of referring to UK as Camelot. But I can’t remember of many occasions, if any, that Big Blue Nation has showed him any love or respect other than when the UKAA inducted him into the UK Hall of Fame a few years ago. But that was done by UK officials, not the Big Blue Nation. Actually, it’s kind of ironic how UK and U of L have used the other over recent years to strengthen their own programs. Pitino has hired several ex-UK players as assistants on his Louisville staff and even plucked one of the late Bill "Mr. Wildcat" Keightley's most favorite UK student-manager as his own equipment manager at Louisville in Vinny “Good Times” Tatum, who until recently sat right beside Pitino on the bench during games just like Keightley did at UK.
Then what does Cal do after observing this for a year or so? He plucks Kenny Payne out of the assistant coaches fraternity and places him on the UK bench to help an already solid UK staff and don’t forget Rock Oliver, a former Pitino/UK assistant who went to NFL then resurfaced at UK with Cal as his boss. I could go on but you get the picture, I’m sure.
Other than the national semifinal battle in 2012 at the Superdome, this may be the game Pitino wants most …… knocking UK off that No. 1 perch and destroying any thoughts of a 40-0 season would be pretty sweet revenge for how the Commonwealth outside of Louisville has treated Pitino the last 12 years.
Problem is I just can’t see it happening.
Other than one of those rare extremely hot nights of shooting threes, I can’t see Louisville beating UK. I don’t know or care what the Vegas point spread will be. I just think UK will put more points on the board than Louisville because they’re so good defensively, and so deep with size and raw basketball talent that Louisville nor anyone else has been able to match up with.
But then again did any of us think Rick Pitino would be on a 12-year coaching run today at Louisville when he left UK for Boston in 1997. Life is full of surprises especially in the world of sports.
You can go online to www.combsbrothersonkysports.com for more coverage of UK sports as well as KHSAA football & basketball.