LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Rick Pitino finally came in as Goliath, favored against his arch-nemesis John Calipari after being on the short end of the stick four consecutive times — including down in New Orleans last April in the national semifinals.
Louisville had just about every edge. Homecourt advantage. Experience. The return of its big man. Stellar defense. If there was a time in the Calipari Era that the Cards would prove their dominance, this had to be it. Despite nearly blowing a double-digit lead, Pitino Co. can claim bragging rights in the Commonwealth. At least for a year.
For a while, it appeared that Louisville was on the verge of a blowout. However, Calipari’s newest edition of the ‘Cats, hardly a carbon-copy of last season’s special team,, battled back and made it a one-possession contest with less than five minutes remaining in the game. The crowd at the Yum! Center became tight, especially with Peyton Siva, Russ Smith and Gorgui Dieng — Louisville’s three most important players — all saddled with four fouls at the eight-minute mark. However, Louisville managed to hold on for the win.
Pitino’s team improved to 12-1 with the 80-77 win, the lone setback coming against top-ranked Duke down in the Bahamas without Dieng. While Kentucky didn’t leave with the win, the Wildcats did depart with respect.
This is a team that has already lost four games — to Duke, Notre Dame, Baylor and now to Louisville. It’s a team without a proven point guard, although Ryan Harrow handled himself well against Louisville’s vaunted defense. It’s a team without a legitimate scoring threat down low — and also a team that lacks leadership and a killer instinct.
Louisville fans can relax for the next couple of months and need to enjoy this season. The Cards have swapped spots with Kentucky for this year, and have aims on a national title while Kentucky will attempt to mature and jell into a team that can make some noise in SEC play and come March in the NCAA tournament. However, with another stellar recruiting class set to arrive in Lexington next fall, it’ll likely return to the way it’s been for the past few years around these parts.
That’s why this win was so critical for Pitino and the Cards.