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Russ Smith's return finally sets up intense UK-Louisville rivalry

By Jeff Goodman | College Basketball Insider

With Russ Smith back, Louisville should have the edge in its matchup with Kentucky. (USATSI)

When Russ Smith reversed field Wednesday and made it official he would be returning to Louisville, it was a cause for celebration. It was certainly time to rejoice around the Yum! Center, and also for college basketball altogether. Marcus Smart pulled the shocker when he came back to Oklahoma State, Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III opted to spurn the NBA for another year in Ann Arbor and Kentucky freshmen Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress also decided to put their pro plans on hold for at least another year. Toss in North Carolina's James Michael McAdoo and Michigan State's Gary Harris with a loaded incoming freshman class next season and the health of college hoops will improve significantly.

Last season there was no dominant team, no face of college basketball. The rivalries were also lackluster after UCLA underachieved, North Carolina got out of the gates slowly and Kentucky was irrelevant for much of the season.

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This year, however, we may have it all. There will be young stars like Andrew Wiggins, wherever he winds up (Kentucky and Florida State are the co-favorites), the Harrison Twins, Julius Randle, Jabari Parker and Aaron Gordon. There will be guys the country has already gotten a chance to know such as Smart, Smith, Robinson, McGary, Cauley-Stein and Duke's Rasheed Sulaimon.

And there will finally be a legitimate rivalry again in the Commonwealth.

People are already handing the national championship to John Calipari and his new batch of youngsters.

Truth: This UK ballyhooed freshman class is the highest rated of any in the history of the game. Calipari has the top player at virtually every position, and is considered one of the frontrunners to land the No. 1 player in the nation in Wiggins.

Truth: Louisville will give the Cats a run for their money next season with Smith back in the fold.

Rick Pitino has lost his leader/point guard in Peyton Siva, but his replacement, junior college scoring floor leader Chris Jones, is more talented. He'll likely share point guard duties with Smith -- who returned to school with the understanding he'd receive an opportunity to improve his skills in directing the offense. The other key loss off last season's national title team was that of big man Gorgui Dieng, a guy who nearly averaged a double-double and also gave Louisville a shot-blocking presence in the paint. Montrezl Harrell should ultimately slide into Dieng's role and give the Cards an ultra-long and athletic forward who can also provide shot-altering defense and will be able to thrive in transition.

Kentucky will have more high-end talent and quality depth with addition of the Harrison Twins, Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson and the return of Cauley-Stein, Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer. Calipari could have nine eventual first-round picks on the roster.

But Pitino will have the experience with a bunch of guys who have gone to a Final Four and won a national title. Smith and Chane Behanan have been integral pieces of a program that has gone to a Final Four and won a championship in successive seasons. Luke Hancock enters his fifth season in college and is coming off a Most Outstanding Player award in the national title game. Wayne Blackshear is finally healthy and Harrell has as much upside as anyone on the team. Kevin Ware has said he'll be back on the court after that horrific leg injury suffered early in the NCAA tournament.

For the first couple years in Lexington, Calipari was running the state. There were those, myself included, who were skeptical whether Pitino would ever be relevant again on a national level. Two seasons ago, he found a way to get the Cardinals to the Final Four, but his team was completely overmatched by Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist & Co. down the road. That was no rivalry. It was just a mere formality.

We all thought this past season would finally be the perfect storm. Pitino's experienced bunch against a new crop of young studs in Lexington. Everyone was licking their chops throughout the Bluegrass state, anticipating these two programs battling for supremacy. Almost everyone had both somewhere in the top five headed into the season, and we at CBSSports.com had Louisville at No. 1 and Kentucky right behind. But it never materialized and Kentucky wound up capping off a disappointing season with a loss to Robert Morris in the NIT.

Finally, we've got what we wanted. Kentucky vs. Louisville. The top two teams in the land. That's the way it'll likely begin the season -- and it could well be the way it ends at Cowboys Stadium on April 7, 2014.

Now it could certainly change if Kentucky does land Wiggins, but at this moment, there's comparable talent.

Andrew Harrison or Chris Jones? I'll give Harrison the edge, but not by much.

Aaron Harrison or Russdiculous? I'll take Smith in that one.

The duo of Poythress and freshman James Young against the twosome of Hancock and Blackshear? It's close, but I'll go with the Cards wings.

Julius Randle and Wiltjer vs. Behanan? Not a no-brainer, but I'll take Kentucky in that one.

Cauley-Stein, Johnson and fellow frosh Marcus Lee against Harrell, Stephan Van Treese, Zach Price and Mangok Mathiang. Again, I'll take the Cats in this one.

Coaching? Calipari vs. Pitino. I'll go with Louisville.

Arizona and UCLA should be intriguing again on the west coast. Duke and North Carolina should take a step back toward what is has been over the years. However, nothing should compare to Kentucky and Louisville.

Not this season.

 
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