In the aftermath of the 2012 NCAA tournament, the spotlight of college basketball is fixated on the Bluegrass state. The Kentucky Wildcats claimed their eighth national championship, the first one for coach John Calipari, while the Louisville Cardinals went to their ninth Final Four appearance, including their second under coach Rick Pitino.
While both coaches took their teams to great heights and added some luster to their coaching resumes, the 2011-12 season definitely belonged to John Calipari. He coached one of the most talented and unselfish teams in the history of Kentucky basketball, albeit with four freshmen, two sophomores and one senior leading the charge.
For him to finally win that long-elusive NCAA national championship trophy is really something special, as he now joins the ranks of Tom Izzo, Jim Boeheim and Bill Self as championship-winning coaches. In fact, he has also joined the ranks of one more contemporary in that category: Rick Pitino.
For years, John Calipari had been chasing after Pitino and always seemed to be one step behind. While coaching at UMass, Cal's 1996 squad fell to Rick's 1996 Kentucky Wildcats (the greatest college basketball team in 25 years) in the Final Four. When Calipari left college to coach the New Jersey Nets, Pitino bested him and took over the legendary Boston Celtics. They both returned to college and Pitino's Louisville Cardinals beat Cal's Memphis Tigers year in and year out in the Conference USA tournament.
However, Calipari has finally flipped the script. He is now coaching at Pitino's former school in Lexington, and Cal is beating Rick at his own game. It is Cal who is coaching the better program, Cal who is winning the head-to-head matchups (four consecutive wins versus Pitino) and Cal who has tied Rick by winning his first and only NCAA national championship.
But this rivalry is far from being one-sided, as Pitino appears to be in the middle of a late-career resurgence. After not reaching the Final Four in six seasons, and with Louisville's 2011-12 squad entering the Big East tournament with little hope for success, Pitino performed one of the greatest coaching performances of his long career.
The Cardinals won four games in four days to win the 2012 Big East Conference tournament. Louisville rode that momentum to the NCAA Sweet 16, where they got some sweet revenge by defeating the No. 1 seed Michigan State Spartans. Pitino then out-dueled his coaching protege, Billy Donovan, in a thrilling come-from-behind victory over the Florida Gators to advance to the Final Four.
This is where the Calipari-Pitino rivalry took one giant step into legendary status: They were squared off against each other in the Final Four. The storylines wrote themselves:
1) On the way to Calipari's first NCAA title, he could also defeat bitter rival Rick Pitino in the process.
2) Calipari would exact revenge for the 1996 Final Four loss to Kentucky by beating Pitino in the Final Four with Kentucky.
3) Pitino could win his second NCAA title while defeating his old rival in the process.
4) Pitino could derail Calipari's best bid for an NCAA title, instantly winning bragging rights for life.
In the end, Calipari won the battle and the trophy. He now sits atop a budding dynasty, with another No. 1-rated recruiting class waiting in the wings and with a fully-loaded Kentucky program set ready to chase after UCLA's record of 11 championships.
But the war is not over. Looking forward to the 2012-13 basketball season, the Wildcats and the Cardinals appear to be set for a Final Four rematch. Rick Pitino will have the majority of his team back, along with a much healthier squad that was crippled this year by injuries. Some media outlets are tabbing the Cardinals as the preseason No. 1 team.
As for Kentucky, they lose all five starters but will reload with Calipari's fourth consecutive top-ranked recruiting class, headlined by Nerlens Noel. The Cats have also been picked to be the preseason favorites, with Louisville nipping at their heels.
As incredible as the 2011-12 season was for the Calipari-Pitino rivalry, there will be even more storylines and drama added next season. Both schools are national championship contenders. Each university has a red-hot coach that is fresh off of a great tournament run. With both state powers already contending for the top spot in the preseason polls, the feud between Rick Pitino and John Calipari is at a fever pitch and is set to add another great chapter in 2012-13. Let the games begin!
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