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Pitino has much at stake in Teague battle

4/22/2010

This is about the time of the Louisville sporting calendar when the glory that is the Kentucky Derby takes over. Louisville's sports columnists and beat writers switch out of basketball mode, put on their handicapper hats, and get everyone ready for what's less a horse race and more a giant party that happens to have some very expensive horses running through it.

Not yet, though. Louisville, Lexington and the Kentucky area at large are paying considerably more attention to the college decision of one Marquis Teague. Teague, who hails from Pike High School in Indianapolis (and happens to be the brother of former Wake Forest and current NBA point guard Jeff Teague), is the No. 4 player in the class of 2011 according to ESPNU. Teague is a "flawless" ball-handler who has the gift to beat defenders one on one at will and force the defense to help," according to ESPNU's latest evaluation. And both John Calipari and Rick Pitino want him.

Sounds like a normal recruitment, right? Wrong. Sure, both coaches want Teague for basketball reasons. But Teague's decision is bigger than that for reasons of prestige -- whatever Teague decides, his choice will say more about the state of the Commonwealth's two basketball programs than any 10,000-word athletics department release ever could.

Few have as good a feel for that dynamic as the always-excellent Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Rick Bozich, who opined accordingly Tuesday:

Louisville or Kentucky? Kentucky or Louisville? Other schools are sometimes mentioned. Don't be deceived. They are pretenders. Teague is the latest, greatest reason for another memorable Rick Pitino-John Calipari tug-of-war. As much as this is about winning, it's more about the coach you're trying to beat.

This relationship has gotten so edgy that now that Pitino has booked a game in Hinkle, I expect Calipari to announce the Wildcats have agreed to play Butler, IUPUI, Marian College, the University of Indianapolis and the Pacers. [...]

Pitino wants him. So does Calipari. Pitino needs him. So does Calipari. But Pitino needs him considerably more — to show Calipari that he's not ready to disappear.

The Lexington Herald's John Clay repeats that consensus in his column on the subject, too: Kentucky would love to grab Marquis Teague. Louisville, on the other hand, desperately needs him:

Yet there might not be a more important day in this commonwealth's basketball future than Thursday. This Thursday. That's the day Marquis Teague announces where he will play college basketball in 2011. [...]

Get Teague, and Louisville's future is back in business. Forget the puzzling Elite Eight loss to Michigan State in 2009. Forget last season's struggles. Add Teague to a class expected to include top prospects Wayne Blackshear, Ryan Taylor and Zach Price, and the Cards are set to soar. Again.

But ... If Teague pulls a blue hat from the under the podium on Thursday, it will rip the heart right out of Planet Red.

Naturally, all of this is accentuated by the, um, strong dislike Calipari and Pitino have for each other, not to mention the proximity and acrimony between the programs' two fan bases. Since Pitino took over at Louisville, Cardinals fans have held the upper hand over their Kentucky counterparts. Then John Calipari was hired. Then John Calipari landed John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. Then John Calipari went 35-3. If Teague spurns Louisville, the school he's favored since he was a high school freshman (Teague's father, Shawn, played for Pitino at Boston U.; Pitino has also hired Teague's former assistant coach Shabaka Lands as a "special assistant" last summer), then it proves every Louisville fan's worst fears: Calipari is out-recruiting, out-coaching, and out-hustling Pitino.

Calipari would like to twist that knife, sure, but if he doesn't get Teague, oh well. Calipari still has a commitment from the No. 1 player in 2011, Michael Gilchrist, and is well on his way to another stellar recruiting class, perhaps the best in the country. On the other hand, Pitino -- despite already snaring a commitment from No. 12 prospect Wayne Blackshear -- desperately needs Teague to show fans in the Commonwealth that the Cardinals aren't going to just hide away in the shadows of Big Blue.

That desperation should tell you everything you need to know about which program is currently winning the Louisville-Kentucky rivalry. Hint: It isn't Louisville.