Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Kentucky and Louisville: It’s Complicated
To the national audience, Saturday's Final Four matchup between Kentucky and Louisville will be a rivalry game along the lines of North Carolina/Duke or Georgetown/Syracuse, a heated traditional matchup played on a grand stage. But to those who have lived in or around the Commonwealth of Kentucky, it will be something far different than Hatfields and McCoys on the hardwood.
You see, a rivalry suggests some level of equality between two sides. Before 2004, Yankee fans (26 World Series titles) looked down on the notion of a rivalry with the Red Sox (zero World Series titles from 1919-2003). Their "rivalry" was as even as a hammer's with a nail.
Kentucky and Louisville's basketball programs aren't quite that far apart. After all, the Cardinals have won two national championships and been to nine Final Fours. And yet, even in the state with that name, they're not Kentucky.
Louisville is an enclave of Cardinal red cut into the hills south of the Ohio River. Surrounded in-state by Big Blue and Indiana's Big Red across the river to the north, Louisville basketball is like West Berlin in Cold War East Germany.
The Wildcats, by contrast, are basketball royalty — just ask them. The breadth of their success is unrivaled. Their fans dominate whatever "neutral" court they are sent to both in numbers and noise per vocal chord.
Across the decades, Kentucky has mattered. From Adolph Rupp's 27 conference titles in 42 years coaching to lottery-pck-magnet John Calipari, not many chapters of college basketball can be written without the Wildcats. Nobody would suggest Louisville lacks history or tradition; it's just the A-student unlucky enough to be two years younger than his A+ brother.
Consider the 2011-2012 squads that will face each other in New Orleans. Kentucky features not only the likely player of the year and top NBA draft pick, but also a handful of other future pros. In a state where bets are placed on the best pedigrees, these Wildcats are thoroughbred favorites.
Louisville, on the other hand, is a mix of glamour-less young players and battle-hardened veterans. In a sport where "experience" is a euphemism for a lack of pro-caliber talent, three of the Cardinals' top four players in minutes played are juniors or seniors.
For Kentucky, the 2011-2012 season has been a formality at times. The Wildcats showcased their raw talent early in wins against North Carolina and Kansas, and undramatically rolled through their conference slate unblemished. By the time calendars hit January, Kentucky was getting every team's best shot.
The ride was not nearly as smooth for Louisville. The Cardinals went through two separate dry stretches that coincided with the toughest parts of their schedule. The start of Big East play, combined with their first encounter with their intrastate rivals, resulted in a 2-5 stretch for the first few weeks of 2012. Louisville righted themselves against a series of unpredictably soft Big East foes, but closed the regular season with a 2-4 dip. Their only regular season win over a ranked team came against Vanderbilt in early December.
And then there are the coaches.
Rick Pitino was, of course, once one of Kentucky's advantages. His rise to a championship coach came with the Wildcats, and his harrying, aggressive style earned him praise. While those commodities were worthless in his failed NBA endeavor, they made him an ideal fit to return to the Bluegrass, this time in Cardinal Red.
Pitino is a vestige of a dying breed, as strange as it may sound. We all understood when Bob Knight, the humanity-crushing bully became a dinosaur. Expanded media access and a decline in the benefit-of-the-doubt leant to authority figures doomed his ilk to extinction.
But Pitino, the over-active tactician, is treading in endangered territory. While nobody would bestow the title of "player's coach" on him, Pitino is certainly not the non-starter to the modern recruit that Knight became. Whereas Knight was the expert sausage maker, grinding the meat that came to play for him into a homogenous product (or else), Pitino deals in something closer to butchery. His aim is not to to break players down beyond recognition, but the cuts he makes still render the original product indistinguishable.
This is not what today's blue chip recruits want. Pitino's style — defensive pressure, always — does not get guys to the top of the lottery. For stars with just one season to shine, Louisville is an unattractive slaughterhouse. Should the cow really care what kind of filet he turns out to be?
By comparison, John Calipari is a shepherd. He collects, breeds, and nourishes talent. A cynic would assume Calipari's recruiting allure is based on untoward methods. The optimist would believe in something else.
There are schools with better weather. There are schools with nicer campuses. And yet the talent keeps flocking. In a very short time, Calipari's Kentucky has become the way-station on the way to the NBA. Where Pitino places devotion to his system at the top of his players' goals, Calipari prefers to keep his ingredients distinct. If the shift of power to the labor supply in the past decade is any indication, we will see many more Caliparis rising in college basketball than Pitinos.
It will be convenient to preview this game as a neighborhood brawl between two equals separated by a mere stretch of I-64. Don't fall for the simplicity. Two elite programs could not be more different.