Ahead of Kentucky-Louisville Showdown, Pitino Impressed With What UK Has Done | Zagsblog
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Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Thursday / April 18.
  • Ahead of Kentucky-Louisville Showdown, Pitino Impressed With What UK Has Done

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    Cal PitinoBy CHRIS RUSSELL

    In a battle of unbeaten teams, one of the nation’s most-anticipated rivalries will take place between bluegrass giants No. 1 Kentucky (12-0) and No. 4 Louisville (11-0) Saturday at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville.

    This year’s Kentucky team has all the makings of a team that could go undefeated, a mark that hasn’t been accomplished since Bob Knight’s 1976 Indiana 1976 squad went 32-0.  In the month of December, many thought Kentucky would suffer a loss or two due to the strength of their schedule (10th nationally) and the season-ending ACL injury to Alex Poythress.  Instead, the Wildcats blitzed through the likes of Texas, Providence, North Carolina and UCLA.

    “They’re a great team,” Louisville head coach Rick Pitino told 247sports. “We have a lot of respect for them. I’m very impressed with them and how humble they are playing together and not worrying about minutes. They are playing great basketball. They are one of the better teams I’ve witnessed in quite some time, on the backboard, as well as defensively.”

    Not only will Saturday feature two of the nation’s top teams, two of the nation’s top coaches will be on hand in a coaching rivalry that dates back over 20 years.

    The tale of the two coaches dates back to Pitino meeting a young John Calipari at a Five-Star Basketball camp. The tale continued when Pitino wrote a $5,000 check to the athletic department of his alma mater, the University of Massachusetts, which hired Calipari to coach the Minutemen.  In 1996, they met in classic matchups when Pitino’s Kentucky squad knocked off the top-seeded Minutemen in the Final Four, a team that had defeated the Wildcats earlier in the season at the Palace of Auburn Hills. Both coaches would cross paths in a short NBA stint and then reunite in intense Conference USA battles.

    Since arriving in the Bluegrass State in 2009, Calipari holds the upper hand in the head-to-head series, 6-1, including defeating the Cardinals in the NCAA Tournament in 2012 and 2014, intensifying the rivalry and adding pressure on Pitino’s shoulder to win Saturday.

    On Kentucky’s schedule, Louisville is the last non-conference opponent and possesses the best chance to derail the Wildcats’ hopes of going undefeated.

    “Everybody thinks you beat Kentucky 3-point shooting,” Pitino told 247sports. “That’s a factor but they win because they control the backboard and they’re an awesome defensive team. We stayed toe-to-toe with them last year and they kicked our butts at the end of the game on the glass.”

    For Louisville to win this game, they will need pre-season All-American Montrezl Harrell (16.7 points per game, 10.0 rebounds) to dominate the interior and out-rebound Kentucky. Harrell, who Pitino calls the best player in America, returns from a one-game suspension.

    “Last year, we definitely lost the game against Kentucky because of offensive rebounding,” Pitino said. “They just pounded us on the glass at the end of the game. Our guards cost us in that game last year. They just stood out there and let them rebound four verses three.”

    The Cardinals also possess quick and explosive guards in Chris Jones (12.3 PPG) and Terry Rozier (16.7 PPG) to go along with forward Wayne Blackshear (13.7 PPG, 6.1 RPG), who brings experience from the 2013 championship team.

    Depth and turnovers could be an issue for Louisville. The Cards have three starters that average more than 30 minutes per game. Lack of depth could be detrimental as Kentucky likes to overwhelm and overpower their opponents with the platoon system, or as Calipari likes to call them “Reinforcements.” On the season, starting point guard Jones has had 33 assists to go with 27 turnovers, a statistic that should raise major concern for Pitino.

    Not only has Calipari dominated the recent head-to-head battle on the court, on the recruiting end, Calipari has defeated Pitino in key recruiting battles such as his success in landing Marquis Teague and Trey Lyles. Teague was recruited for two years by Pitino before Calipari jumped in late in the process, only to sway the top point guard to Lexington.  Then there is Lyles, who opted for Kentucky over Louisville in an intense recruiting battle. “They have great facilities, great school, great fans, great coaches and a great history with getting players to the NBA,” said Lyles on why he chose Kentucky.

    Kentucky is currently targeting top shooting guard Antonio Blakeney who originally committed to Louisville before spurning the Cardinals and re-opening his recruitment a week later. Blakeney could decide soon as he is down to LSU, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina N.C. State.

    Though Calipari has dominated the rivalry since 2009 and leads the all-time head-to-head battle 14-12, many could argue that Calipari’s presence in the bluegrass has ignited Pitino to higher grounds. Since 2012, Pitino has posted three consecutive 30-win seasons, back-to-back Final Fours and a national championship to add to his astounding resume.

    Should Louisville manage to defeat Kentucky on Saturday, the victory could catapult the Cardinals to the top spot in the country.  As for Pitino, a victory Saturday will help alleviate some of the mounted pressure from the head-to-head battle with Calipari.

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