The road to this year’s Final Four has reached its destination and will now feature a highway of hate between two opponents. John Calipari and Rick Pitino will lead each of their respective squads in a late season showdown. The 44th chapter of the non-rivalry, according to Coach Calipari, will take place miles away from the usual chaotic game day cities of Lexington and Louisville. New Orleans can only hope each set of fans from the state with the Bourbon Trail behave on and around Bourbon Street.
Competition within separate conferences doesn’t necessarily have the two schools jockeying for the same hardware each season. Instead, both Kentucky and Louisville basketball teams play to represent a distinction of who will wear the crown for the Bluegrass State one year at a time. Whatever someone would like to distinguish this now annual meeting of basketball teams, will see an early renewal on state supremacy. The initial Battle of the Bluegrass was played in 1913 with Kentucky earning a win. Decades passed with these two schools meeting sporadically on the hardwood. The two have since scheduled each other yearly since 1983 with Kentucky holding a 29-14 overall series lead. Compared to Duke-UNC who has played over two hundred times, Calipari’s assessment may indeed have some truth. The storyline this time around may have more to do with the opposing coaches than the players on each roster composing the box score.
The first collegiate meeting of these two coaching minds seen Pitino play host to Calipari’s University of Massachusetts team in Lexington back during the 1991-92 season. The Big Blue Nation witnessed Pitino leading his Kentucky team to a convincing 90-69 win. They would meet again in the NCAA tournament the same season with Pitino earning another victory. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 1995-96 season before both coaches would again convene on a basketball court, with Calipari earning a notch in the win column. An additional encounter took place a few months later in the Meadowlands during the Final Four weekend. Pitino avenged the early season loss by besting a now vacated semifinal appearance of Calipari’s as Kentucky went on to win their sixth national championship.
After brief stints in the NBA, where these two coaches crossed paths a total of seven times, a return to the college landscape had them reuniting as adversaries in Conference USA. Calipari was able to defeat Pitino four straight years during their regular season match-ups. They only met once during the 2001-02 campaign, but the following three seasons seen Pitino win each rematch, twice during their conference tournaments, before Louisville moved into the Big East.
Recent success has been one-sided, favoring Calipari’s three straight wins since arriving in Lexington. If Calipari can beat Pitino on Saturday he will also match the longest win streak for either against one another. Two consecutive New Jersey Nets victories in 1999 coupled with Memphis beating Louisville in 2002 and 2003 has Coach Calipari holding the consecutive wins bragging rights. Pitino currently holds post-season bragging rights with a 4-0 record.
Loyal die-hards will show their unwavering support for each side even though one set of fans may claim the city which sits on the Ohio River and plays host to the Kentucky Derby each year doesn’t exist. Just short of his children being born, Coach Pitino claims making the Final Four this season is the greatest moment of his life, even though a banner in Rupp Arena hangs his defining coaching accomplishment.
Neither coach will recognize the grudge they hold by name. The recipe simply doesn’t fit the menu when feeding each of their egos. Even though both have trouble facing reality, they should have no issue in facing each other for a chance to play for national prominence.