You like Duke–North Carolina? We all do. Great games, great teams, great entertainment.
But if you want piss and vinegar with your college basketball rivalry instead of wine and cheese, you must salute the hate of Kentucky-Louisville. You must respect the petty. You must embrace the enmity of two fan bases that really, really—no, really—despise each other.
Remember, two senior citizens fought at a dialysis clinic over the rivalry in 2012, before their teams met in the Final Four. Until they do that on Tobacco Road, those fancy pants programs can stand down.
Lately, the Wildcats vs. the Cardinals had lost a bit of its switchblade, streetfight edge. For one thing, Kentucky has played hammer to Louisville’s nail—the Cats have won three straight and six of the last seven. For another, the coaches had stopped doing their chippy part: Rick Pitino got tired of John Calipari’s goading and tried simply ignoring him; David Padgett was an interim coach who barely had his feet on the ground before absorbing a pummeling from Cal; and for the past two years, Chris Mack was just warming up to the task of combating Cal.
Now? Consider Mack fully lathered.
Mark Dec. 26th on your calendar—sources told Sports Illustrated that likely is when the 2020 game will be played, though it hasn’t been announced. Boxing Day might literally be boxing day when Mack and Calipari get together in the Yum Center.
Tuesday evening, Mack released a two-minute Twitter video savaging Calipari and Kentucky for alleged scheduling shenanigans surrounding this year’s game. It was a bravura performance.
“Cards fans, your fearless leader Coach Mack,” he said, launching his oratory. “I keep getting asked, ‘Coach, are we playing THE game? Are you scared? Are you a chicken? You won’t play Kentucky?’”
“As for the UK series, here’s the thing: I want to do what’s most convenient for John and his program. You do believe that, right? That I want to do what’s best for John?”
Provocative! Go on.
“Never mind the fact that we had a mutually agreed upon date of Dec. 12 to play the game, and never mind the fact that they backed out of the 12th, because they were returning from London on Dec. 6 after playing Michigan. Thought it was too close to the 12th. Never mind the fact that that Dec. 6 game got canceled—no trip to London. Can we play that game on the 12th? Never mind the fact that they scheduled Notre Dame in lieu of playing us on the mutually agreed upon date of Dec. 12. Never mind the fact that they called ESPN and tried to change one of our ACC games without our knowledge or permission.”
Indiana fans and former coach Tom Crean, having gone through the scheduling wringer with Calipari and Kentucky a few years ago, nod knowingly. Now, is that flurry of jabs 100% accurate? We’ll see what Kentucky says when Cal responds—bet the house, he will respond. But know this: Cal has never been shy about calling the suits in Bristol to apply some pressure and get things in his favor. That part is 100% believable.
Now back to Mack:
“Never mind the fact that Coach Stoops and his football program at the University of Kentucky honored that request in football, to move Louisville’s home game from 2020 to 2021. If you could do it in football, seems like you could do it in basketball. Never mind the fact that the University of Cincinnati asked us to do the same exact thing that we’re asking Kentucky to do, and we honored that request.”
Some explanatory backstory here: With the pandemic wreaking havoc on scheduling, Mack ruminated on a podcast last week about playing this year’s Kentucky-Louisville game at a neutral site, then pushing back the contract so Louisville would benefit (monetarily and competitively) from a full house in ’21 as opposed to playing Kentucky in an empty or nearly-empty 22,000-seat arena. (That’s the reason why Cincinnati asked to move its game against Louisville back a season.)
Apparently, Mack’s podcast comments prompted this from Calipari Tuesday, according to The Courier-Journal: “If they choose not to play, then we’ll plug in another team. We already have that team set.” And that, in turn, appears to be what set Mack off later in the day.
And now, the dramatic conclusion of Chris Mack Goes Off.
“Listen, I don’t want to stand in the way of college basketball’s best rivalry. Whatever is most convenient for Coach Cal …”
Slams fist on table.
“… We’ll do it. See you in the Yum Center. Go Cards.”
And with that, the dying embers of the rivalry roared back to blast furnace force. The edge is back. The heat is on.
Do you see Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams bickering in public? You do not. It helps that the Atlantic Coast Conference schedules their games against each other, so they don’t have to. It also helps that each coach is secure in his station, with eight national championships between them and many years on the job.
Here in the commonwealth of Kentucky? The default position is not playing nice. When the two sides do play nice, it feels fake. It often is fake. In a state without pro sports, the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry is all-consuming. In a state with some distinct demographic differences between the fan bases, the culture war is real.
These are reasons why Calipari was the perfect addition. He thrives on conflict and is most comfortable in a fight, which is why he perceives so many enemies. He needs them.
This time, Cal didn’t even have to go looking for a fight.
And let it be said that Mack isn’t one to back down from a scrap. When he coached at Xavier, the deeply contentious rivalry with Cincinnati was at or near peak viciousness. (It included one major in-game brawl, resulting in long player suspensions, while Mack was coaching the Musketeers and Mick Cronin was coaching the Bearcats.)
That Chris Mack hasn’t been the one we’ve seen going up against John Calipari the previous two Decembers. But he made a theatrical appearance Tuesday. And now, as Cal likes to say, the most heated and hateful rivalry in college basketball is on like Donkey Kong.