When Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals tip off against John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats at the KFC Yum! Center (Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN), it will mark the 13th time the coaches have faced each other with ranked teams and the 11th in which they hailed from different conferences. That mark ties an AP poll-era record set by UK’s Joe B. Hall and Indiana’s Bobby Knight for most ranked meetings between two coaches from different conferences. The Calipari-Pitino rivalry has few equals in terms of intensity, longevity, intrigue or consequence.
The two coaches first faced each other on Dec. 4, 1991, when a 32-year-old Calipari brought his unranked UMass team to Lexington to play Pitino’s Wildcats. (UK won 90–69.) Now, a quarter of a century later, these are two elder statesmen who have won a combined three national titles, made 13 Final Four appearances and are still trying to best each other over 40 minutes of basketball.
The series between Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo comes close, but no current nonconference pairing can quite match Calipari and Pitino for intensity, drama or, most of all, frequency. Calipari leads Pitino in the series seven games to three when both teams are ranked. In fact, the current UK coach has won six of the seven meetings between the two since taking the job in Lexington before the 2009–10 season. Pitino’s only win in the current UK-Louisville incarnation of the rivalry came in December of 2012, and that Cardinal team won a national title the following April. Kentucky has won four in a row in the series since then, including the win over Louisville in the 2014 Sweet 16 and last season’s 75–73 thriller.
Both teams pick up the pace
To say Kentucky has accelerated this season would be putting it mildly. In the space of one offseason, UK has gone from being in the 200s in Division I in terms of pace to ranking among the fastest-paced teams in the country. The new style certainly suits guards De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Isaiah Briscoe: UK is taking excellent care of the ball, hitting its shots and scoring points in bunches. For years, observers proclaimed solemnly that “you don’t want to get into a running game” with a Wildcats team that actually, well, did not get into very many running games. (Maybe opposing coaches were heeding the observers’ advice.) That has all changed in 2016–17.
At first glance, Louisville appears to have charted the same kind of increase in tempo as UK, and, strictly speaking, the Cardinals are indeed playing a good deal faster than they did last season. Then again, it might turn out that 2015–16 that was the outlier. Last season marked the slowest tempo (relative to the rest of Division I) seen during Pitino’s entire tenure at Louisville. Think of 2016–17 then as somewhat of a return to standard operating procedure for the Cards. Donovan Mitchell, Deng Adel & Co. are playing at a tempo that’s neither fast nor slow, yet familiar to Louisville fans.