Which Powerhouse Has the Better NCAA Title Blueprint: Kentucky or Louisville?

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Which Powerhouse Has the Better NCAA Title Blueprint: Kentucky or Louisville?
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INDIANAPOLIS — The television in the common area at Kentucky's dorm this week was stuck on CNN.

"We're not allowed to watch ESPN," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "They took the batteries out of the remote."

Well then. Let's catch Kentucky up on the storylines that seem to play over and over again every time those young whippersnappers square off against Russ Smith and the grizzled vets at Louisville.

This one comes Friday in the Sweet 16, but the real talking point will be whose approach—John Calipari's player-first or Rick Pitino's program-first—is superior.

See, Willie, a week ago the story almost wrote itself real nicely for us media types.

Duke and Jabari Parker losing to Mercer. Kansas and Andrew Wiggins getting knocked out of the NCAA tournament by some smart upperclassmen from Stanford.

One-and-done had a new meaning.

One (weekend) and done. As in season over. Put all of your eggs in the freshmen basket? Go home. And don't let the kiddos forget their participatory medals on their way to the NBA draft.

This tournament was for the seniors, and the coaches, like Pitino, who built their programs the "right way."

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Kentucky held on versus Fred VanVleet and Wichita State.

But then...Kentucky beat Wichita State.

And your coach, Calipari, is back this week where he likes to be—the story of the tournament with a team that no one wants to play.

Yeah, your team that had the greatest recruiting class of all time, that was supposed to go 40-0 and ended up with 10 losses. Some would call that a bust.

Once, twice and three times left for dead this season, Calipari is spinning this week—"We didn't struggle throughout the whole season. Every game we lost was like a two‑point, three‑point game," he said—and defending the pit stop he runs in Lexington.

"The rule is not my rule," Calipari said again, as if this track was playing on repeat. "I believe it should be a two‑year rule. But it's between the NBA and the players association. Has nothing to do with me or the NCAA.

Bill Haber/Associated Press
Louisville head coach Rick Pitino (left) and Kentucky head coach John Calipari.

"So I just think we're all playing the hand we're dealt. Kids are going on to the league from us and performing, and I'm proud of that. Would I like to have had them for four years? Yes. But I also like what's happened for them and their families."

No one has navigated his way through the one-and-done era quite like Calipari, who two years ago steamrolled through the NCAA tournament and squashed Louisville's upperclassmen in the Final Four on his way to his first title.

The Cards have experienced firsthand how hard future pros are to beat. Calipari is 5-1 against Louisville since he arrived at Kentucky, including a win earlier this year in one of those glimpses of what this team could become.

So what took so long?

With all of that talent, the thought is the Cats just decided to play hard.

John Raoux/Associated Press
Seniors Russ Smith (left) and Luke Hancock.

With Louisville seniors—and Pitino starts three—the thought is that they're just a little more locked in this time of year. Case in point: Since Pitino inserted senior Steven Van Treese into the starting lineup along with Smith and Luke Hancock, Louisville has won 13 of 14 games.

"I think there's a certain psyche behind the game for seniors," Smith said. "It means a little bit more, and it could potentially be their last game. So certain rotations or certain plays that you may put emphasis on that you may not have put emphasis on at the beginning of the year, the emphasis becomes bigger this time of the year."

As Pitino chitchatted with CBS announcers Jim Nantz and Greg Anthony on Thursday, he started reflecting on the career of Smith, who only got a scholarship at Louisville because his former assistant Ralph Willard talked him into it.

Smith has a chance to go down as not just a Louisville legend but a college basketball one if he can beat Kentucky on Friday and then lead his team to back-to-back national titles.

"Russ has had fun the whole way," Pitino told Nantz and Anthony.

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
Kentucky's Julius Randle.

When Calipari reflected Thursday, he talked about Anthony Davis, John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, all players who spent one season in Lexington.

Kentucky's starting five (freshmen Julius Randle, Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, James Young and Dakari Johnson) have a chance to add themselves as talking points of Calipari's mantra: It's not my rule; I just beat your butts in spite of it.

That rubs some folks the wrong way, but even Pitino said he agrees with many of the points Calipari makes. And he may realize, if he were still at Kentucky, he might just be doing things the same way.

Had the stars of Pitino's teams in the 1990s—Jamal Mashburn, Antoine Walker and Ron Mercer—played in this era, they all probably would have left after one year as well.

Instead, Pitino has been willing to take on some projects. He's found some under-recruited players like Smith or transfers—Hancock started his career at George Mason, and point guard Chris Jones played two years of junior college ball. 

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The truth is, you get the best players you can who fit your style, and you try to go win with those guys.

But that's not good enough for most of us. We want an answer to who is doing things the best way, especially when it comes to Louisville and Kentucky.

And historically, the answer could be provided over the next two weeks.

If Louisville wins Friday and goes on to a third straight Final Four, the case for building with program guys looks like the right way to go.

If Kentucky wins a second title in three years, the 40-0 jokes will stop. Questioning Calipari as a coach should stop. He will have pulled off one of the best five-year runs in the modern era with three Final Fours and two national titles.

But if whoever wins Friday goes on to lose Sunday in the Elite Eight, the debate will not end. Heck, the debate is probably never going to end as long as Calipari is around.

Are you caught up now, Willie? 

 

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.

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