The state of Kentucky is home to one of the most heated rivalries in the country, longtime friends and family members often do not speak when the Kentucky Wildcats and the Louisville Cardinals battle for state supremacy. Since Coach Calipari’s arrival to the Bluegrass State the Wildcats have dominated the rivalry, attracted the nation’s top recruits, and won conference and national championships.
However, only a few miles away another Hall-of-Fame coach was slowly building an elite program by developing talent with diamond in the roughs who did not appear destined to shake the hands of Commissioner Stern after playing one year of college basketball. The talent that Rick Pitino has assembled in Louisville finally looks ready to not only to regain state supremacy but also bring another national championship back to the state of Kentucky.
The Cardinals are led by senior point guard Peyton Silva and slasher Russ Smith who each spent the summer improving their games and ignored the lure of the NBA Draft. Silva was once known just for his scoring but each year he has continued to refine his skills by getting his teammates the ball. Not known to see a shot he did not like Russ nicknamed ‘Russ-diculous’ by Coach Pitino has finally begun to play within the offense and seldom goes rogue unless a scoring punch is needed (scoring a career-high 31 points against UMKC.)
The frontcourt is led by Gorgui Dieng an import from Sudan who brings a defensive presence to the Cardinal frontcourt that makes opponents think twice before coming into the lane. His partner in crime Chane Behannan who despite being an undersized forward is a monster on the boards who has finally shook the injury bug that plagued him last year.
Pitino appears to have the pieces in place to make some noise in March, there is very little drop off from the second unit who are led by sophomore guard Wayne Blackshear and two former Parade All-Americans, sophomore guard Kevin Ware and former Virginia Tech commit forward Montrezl Harrell.
Expectations in Louisville could not be higher and although the Cards have lost their defensive intimidator in Gorgui Dieng to a broken wrist until December 19th their play in his absence has truly been impressive. Coach Pitino has used the absence of his defensive stopper as an opportunity to build depth and get minutes for his talented but inexperienced big men who he will need come tournament time.
Although it has taken Pitino longer than expected to build another title contender armed with the experience from last year’s final four run the time to crown a new king of Kentucky may be fast approaching. The Cardinals have the senior leadership and the talent to contend, but will they finally win when it counts? The battle for Kentucky on December 29th will determine more than just a ‘W,’ but bragging rights, recruits, and maaybe even a number seed in the tournament. Stay tuned… I know I will – A. Denmark