Louisville Cardinals Coach Rick Pitino can breathe easier now. His more experienced, No.4 Cardinals defeated John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats 80-77. It was Pitino’s first win against a Calipari-coached Kentucky team.
But beating the Wildcats won’t shake the Kentucky monkey off Pitino’s back.
Pitino won his only NCAA Championship nearly 17 years ago when he coached Kentucky. Since then he’s had success at Louisville, that city school. But the boys in Lexington can boast that Louisville’s last NCAA Championship was in 1986, under legendary coach Denny Crum.
So yes Pitino savors a win for the night. But the Kentucky monkey won’t go away until he wins a title at Louisville.
Prior to the game Pitino downplayed the rivalry between he and Calipari, as well as the bad blood between Cardinals and Wildcats fans.
“The only game that really has meant anything to me was last year, for the first time on either side,” Pitino said yesterday. “It cost us a chance to win a national championship.”
Pitino wants us to believe that beating Calipari and Kentucky is just another game. Even though the visibly bulging veins in his neck during these games says otherwise.
He entered the game 0-4 against Calipari-coached Wildcats. The toughest lost came earlier this year when Kentucky ousted Louisville from the Final Four.
The rivalry between the two hot-tempered Italians predates their arrival in the Bluegrass State. The disdain and public denials about it have been chronicled for years.
Pitino arrived in the state before Calipari and revamped the program that Adolph Rupp built. Pitino’s Wildcats won the NCAA Tournament in 1996. A year later, after losing in the title game, Pitino left for a second stint in the NBA.
When he decided to return to college basketball in 2001, he came back to Kentucky, but to coach the Wildcats’ arch enemy Louisville.
The year after Pitino left Kentucky, Tubby Smith coached the Wildcats to an NCAA Championship. Calipari arrived at Kentucky in 2009 and already has an NCAA Championship. So the Wildcats have won two titles since Pitino’s departure. Pitino’s won none.
There’s no denying that Pitino established his coaching greatness when he became the first coach to lead three different schools to the Final Four. But in the Bluegrass State, his ascent to the top seems like a lifetime ago.
It probably irks Pitino that he brought glory back to Kentucky, only to have his nemesis, Calipari, seize the spotlight.
This win eases the weight of envy. But until Pitino can bring Louisville the title, that Kentucky monkey will keep riding his back.
Merlisa blogs about Big East Conference basketball. Follow her on Twitter: @merlisa