LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky Wildcats coach John Calipari said Rick Pitino’s absence from Friday’s matchup against the Louisville Cardinals, marking the first time the two won’t face off in the rivalry game since 2009, won’t impact his team.
Calipari said his squad is more focused on repairing the defects that cost the Wildcats in a Saturday loss to UCLA in New Orleans than the particulars of their upcoming meeting with their in-state rivals.
“For us, it’ll be you’re playing a game after a loss, you’re playing after Christmas,” Calipari said Thursday in response to a question about Pitino, who was fired in September for his alleged role in a $100,000 pay-for-play scandal involving Adidas and the family of five-star recruit Brian Bowen. “Knowing my guys, they don’t even know [Pitino is gone]. They may go into the game … ‘Where is he?’ “
With Pitino and Calipari coaching, Louisville-Kentucky regained its status as college basketball’s most captivating rivalry after Duke-North Carolina. In 10 meetings against Calipari’s Wildcats, however, Pitino’s Cardinals won just two games.
This season, both teams will enter the game searching for momentum. Kentucky is a talented bunch that’s also one of America’s worst teams at the free throw line (68 percent). Plus, the Wildcats have squandered nearly one-fifth of their possessions this season due to turnovers.
David Padgett has coached Louisville to a 10-2 record this season, his first as a head coach. But the Cardinals lost both games to the only top-50 opponents they’ve faced (Purdue, Seton Hall) thus far.
But Calipari praised Padgett’s effort with the Cardinals.
“I think David has done a great job,” Calipari said. “They’re doing some of the things he’s learned. … Some of the stuff that he’s using is really creative stuff. It’s good.”
It’s clear Calipari is more focused on molding his young team than the magnitude of this season’s rivalry game with Louisville.
He said his team showboated in Saturday’s loss because it “did not want to grind it out.” He also said he wants the Wildcats to embrace “fight mode.”
“It’s not, in my mind, the biggest game of the year,” Calipari said. “The last game ends up being the biggest game as you go forward.”