By Jon Rothstein
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Some may call them rivals.
Other may call them enemies.
We call their meeting next week in New Orleans “The Ultimate Challenge” — a showdown that had the basketball gods smiling as soon as Kentucky wrapped up it’s regional final victory on Sunday over Baylor.
Rick Pitino and John Calipari have met before in the Final Four — it was 16 years ago in 1996 when Pitino was at Kentucky and Calipari was at Umass — but this is different.
Since Pitino led the Wildcats to the only National Championship he’s won in his Hall of Fame career, things have drastically changed.
Now Calipari is the lead man in Lexington while Pitino has Louisville in the Final Four for the second time in his tenure as coach of the Cards.
The two coaches aren’t as close as they used to and that may be putting it mildly.
They don’t go to dinner anymore.
They rarely talk.
“It’s fine,” Calipari said when asked about his relationship with Pitino on Sunday. “I mean, we don’t send each other Christmas cards.”
And now they’re about to face off on Saturday night in New Orleans in the Final Four.
On paper, this game is a mismatch.
Kentucky has superior talent while Louisville looks merely to be a group of overachievers led by a coach in Pitino whose brilliance on the sidelines seems to be getting better with each passing season.
Calipari meanwhile has been grossly underrated as a coach despite producing multiple first round picks on annual basis since he arrived in Lexington.
Has this rivalry ever been put on that type of a level?
Not by a longshot.
“It’s always been fierce,” Calipari said of the Louisville-Kentucky rivalry early in the season.
But it’s never been on this level.
Not in the Final Four.
Not with he and Pitino leading their respective sides like there’s a civil war right in the middle of the Commonwealth.
The Ultimate Challenge?
You better believe it.