Louisville-Kentucky: Wildcats' John Calipari Basketball's 'New Normal'

Jonathan LintnerSenior Analyst IJanuary 3, 2010

LEXINGTON, KY - JANUARY 02:  John Calipari the Head Coach of the Kentucky Wildcats gives instructions to his team during the game against the Louisville Cardinals at Rupp Arena on January 2, 2010 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

LEXINGTON, Ky.—There was a changing of the guard of sorts at Rupp Arena Saturday that had less to do with one game and more with a college basketball movement.

In knocking off Louisville 71-62, Kentucky swept the football and basketball series meetings this season between the Bluegrass State rivals for the first time since the Cardinals did it in 2003-2004.

It was a grudge match—five technical fouls between both teams—on the grandest stage, in front of a record Rupp Arena crowd of 24,479 people. Kentucky coach John Calipari said he found his toughest lineup in the second half, and that's what it took to overcome a bitter, in-state rival.

“I found the five guys that were not going to give an inch and I rode them the rest of the game,” Calipari said. “When I found those last five, they weren't after it...they have a will to win that is hard to just teach.”

Wider scope though, Calipari showcased that his way of running a program is college basketball's “new normal,” a term that describes how Americans are changing as a result of the country's economic recession.

And he proved it against the No. 1 former example, Cardinals coach Rick Pitino.

For years, Pitino's methods were considered the standard in college basketball. He breaks his players down, teaches them fundamentals while stressing defense, and creates an end product that fits his system better as a player's career progresses.

Consider those days over, just the same as the United States is looking to get past its economic woes.

No gas money? Ride a bike. No haircut, no problem—people can do that themselves now. Buy on credit? Just don't buy at all. That's how the new normal works on an economic level, where it was originally derived.

In an age of one-and-done phenoms like Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, and John Wall, it's Calipari's dribble-drive offense and tough-love treatment of players that's marking a new normal in college basketball.

That, and swift player development that Pitino hasn't been able to match.

“I didn't think I was going to get this level," Wall said. "I always played good when I was in high school but playing for him (Calipari), he's going to take you to another level and get you better. I thought I was at the top of my potential when I was in high school. I'm nowhere near it."

Pitino has taken more than eight seasons to build a small empire at Louisville, where the Cardinals have visited the Final Four just once under his leadership. Calipari, however, turned Kentucky around in a single offseason, filling his roster with talents Pitino can only dream of swaying to his side.

This time last year, Louisville had completed its second straight rivalry win over Kentucky as former coach Billy Gillispie fell from Wildcats fans' good graces. But Calipari brought the talent back to Lexington, and in doing so, changed attitudes and approaches.

“What he does, he does it well,” freshman DeMarcus Cousins said. “He's just a genius.”

In the first half of Saturday's game, however, it was the Wildcats' pure talent that created a 13-point lead for Kentucky.

Louisville finished the half 5-of-29 shooting, committed 12 turnovers to no assists, and went into the locker room with only 19 points. The Cardinals fought back though to take the lead with 9:51 remaining, but from there, Wall stepped up and scored six straight points for Kentucky.

Wall finished with 17 points, Cousins with 18, and freshman Eric Bledsoe with 12—all players Kentucky wouldn't have if it weren't for Calipari.

Bledsoe said Calipari's allure is mostly mental, being that he gets everyone to believe in a team effort and lets individuals flourish.

“Coach Cal told me that I'm going to start doing a lot of stuff I didn't do before,” Bledsoe said. “It's really easy. Whatever he tells you to do, you just do it.

“He told everyone what he wanted to do, and everybody started taking it in. We look like a team now.”

Calipari lands the big recruit, lets him play his own game rather than fit a strict system, and he readies him for the NBA. Then he does it over again.

That's the new normal in college basketball—finding a way to capitalize on the one-year talents brought about by the NBA's age requirements.

Some things, however, will always stay the same.

Americans will always have freedom, barbecues, and sports to bond them together just as college basketball will always have figurehead coaches—titans of their craft and faces of programs.

Whether that face is smiling or scowling—screaming or consoling—will change over time. The degree of micromanaging and philosophies will too stay fluid.

And every once in a while, a new era of the college game will supplant the old.

Saturday at Rupp Arena, Calipari's one-and-done powerhouse overwhelmed Pitino's mainstay lineup, just as Pitino did when he took advantage of the three-point shot in his early years at Kentucky.

Follow @JonathanLintner on Twitter.


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