Battle for the Bluegrass in the Big Easy

LOUISVILLE AND KENTUCKY FACE OFF IN THE FINAL FOUR

Y’all ready for this?!?

Saturday at 6:09 ET, the University of Louisville Cardinals will square off in New Orleans against the University of Kentucky Wildcats in a Final Four matchup to decide one of the teams vying for the NCAA men’s college basketball championship.

This is one of those rare basketball moments that requires no additional hype, but for those not living in the Bluegrass, it might help to re-frame why this duel between bitter rivals rates so high.

Off the bat, the only games in college basketball history resembling the magnitude of this matchup takes us back to the 1961 and 1962 seasons, when in-state rivals Cincinnati and Ohio State played for the national championship two years in a row.

Intrastate rivalries are not unique, nor are border battles between connected states, but to elevate them past the ordinary and onto a national stage requires perceived excellence by both schools.

I give the nod to the Tobacco Road boys for having the premier college basketball rivalry. North Carolina and Duke are only separated by eight miles and play in the same conference.

But they have never played in the Final Four, and that rivalry gets dinged slightly by the fact the two schools do play at least twice a year. Each team gets a chance to avenge a loss to the other, while the Battle for the Bluegrass is a one game affair for all the bragging rights.

That is until this year.

* * * * *

Kentucky and Louisville have met 4 times in the NCAA tournament, with each winning two, but the Cards won the “Dream Game” confrontation in 1983, that really lit the fire under this rivalry.

Louisville, under hall of fame coach Denny Crum, was an elite basketball power in the 1970s and 80s. Kentucky coaches Adolph Rupp and Joe B. Hall considered Crum’s Cardinals the lesser step brother, and refused to recognize their emergence by meeting them on the basketball court.

It had been 61 years since Kentucky faced Louisville. Even after Louisville won the 1980 NCAA championship, Coach Crum couldn’t get UK to return his phone calls.

Here is where the NCAA’s peculiar sense of humor intervened.

Everyone wanted to see Kentucky play Louisville, and everyone knew Kentucky was dodging them, so the NCAA selection committee placed the Wildcats and the Cardinals into the Mideast Region together, where they met in the Elite Eight, with Louisville advancing to the Final Four after defeating Kentucky, 80-68 in overtime.

This triggered an uproar heard around the state and saw the sitting governor, John Y. Brown, Jr., intervene with UK officials to insist Kentucky resume playing Louisville on a yearly basis.

These days the prevailing thought in UK’s camp tends to be that they possess the steadier of the two programs, and while Louisville will win occasionally, Kentucky should dominate the series.

The two schools have played 43 times since 1913, and every year since 1983, with Kentucky ahead in the series 29-14.

* * * * *

Another aspect cranking up the volume on this game is the history of these two programs and where they rank in the pantheon of college basketball.

Kentucky and Louisville share 9 national championships between them – same number as UNC/Duke.

Kentucky’s 109 NCAA tournament wins, 52 NCAA tournament appearances, 2,088 total victories, and a .763 winning percentage are all ranked first in college basketball history. UK’s seven national championships are second only to UCLA’s 11.

The Louisville Cardinals are just outside the honor roll of college basketball, ranked seventh by my calculations. The Cards have two national titles, 64 NCAA wins (6th), 38 NCAA appearances (5th), an overall record of 1662-863 (16th), for a win percentage of .658 (9th).

This is a huge game for both schools that have diametrically opposed fan bases. Kentucky’s faithful refuses to acknowledge Louisville belongs on the same page of greatness with their beloved Wildcats, and Cardinal fans could care less.

It’s hard to say whether there is a direct racial undertone to this rivalry, but it’s a legitimate topic of discussion.

What is not conjecture is the tone set by UK’s legendary coach Adolph Rupp, who was blatantly stubborn to accept integration of his all-white Kentucky teams. This was a philosophy that started in the 1930s and continued until he retired in 1972.

There always has been this unstated sense of black versus white, urban versus country, within this rivalry.

Geography and demographics have a lot to do with this.

The city of Louisville is situated on Kentucky’s northern border, just across from Indiana. It’s a river town and a gateway west and to the East Coast. It has always been an important hub in the upper-South for shipping and travel, and best known as the host city for the Kentucky Derby.

These are elements that lend to having a diverse population.

Metro Louisville is over 700,000 people, by far the largest city in the state, and 17th largest in the country, with an African-American population of 21 percent.

Lexington is the second largest city in Kentucky at 295,803, rating 63rd largest in the country, and has an African-American population of 14.5 percent.

Located in central Kentucky, Lexington is known as the “Horse Capital of the World.” Less urban than Louisville and more tony and insular, Lexington embraces an old-South charm.

This country club set likes its basketball blue and white.

If you think in terms of a political map – Louisville is the lone red spot in a state of Wildcat blue, which is the exact opposite of the state’s political affiliations.

Often there are misconceptions about these two universities being radically different, when in reality they aren’t that dissimilar.

Kentucky has an enrollment of over 27,000 students. Its population is 78.4 percent white, with 6.6 percent being African-American.

Louisville’s enrollment is 19,743, of which 77.4 percent are white, and 10.9 percent are African-American.

What keeps the pot boiling between these two is their campuses are only 78 miles apart, which places students and alumni in close proximity to taunt one another.

* * * * *

It’s not possible to fully explain the insane devotion that comes with UK basketball fans. It takes normally rational, well-educated people and turns them into blood lusting blue-clad savages.

Louisvillians tend to be a bit more even keeled about their passion for the Cardinals. They want them to win, and certainly beat Kentucky, but can get on with their days regardless.

Kentucky fans also have a militant subsection that can be downright ugly. This group is about as witty as a bag of hammers. They take this sport WAY too seriously, and attach their own self-worth to the success of Kentucky’s basketball program.

This group thinks they are part of the team. When referring to an upcoming Kentucky game you’ll hear, when “WE” play Florida, blah, blah, blah, as if they are actually going to be out on the court playing defense.

Ironically, this crew is lucky if they finished high school, much less darkened the doors of UK, Louisville, or even a second-rate community college. They barely have the right to be a fan of a university program, much less pass judgement on a school like Louisville.

Previously, differences could have been drawn between the racial make up or style of play at Kentucky and Louisville, but that hasn’t been true for some time.

In fact Louisville’s coach, Rick Pitino, is the former Kentucky coach. He was hired away from the New York Knicks in 1989 to come and rescue UK in the aftermath of the recruiting scandal surrounding former coach Eddie Sutton.

Pitino has seen both sides of this rivalry. He took the Wildcats to the promised land in 1996, winning the national championship, then returned to the NBA after losing the 1997 title game to Arizona.

When Kentucky went on to win the 1998 NCAA championship, under coach Orlando “Tubby” Smith, Pitino referred to Kentucky as “The Roman Empire of college basketball.”

“There will be people at Kentucky that will have a nervous breakdown if they lose to us,” said Pitino. “You’ve got to watch. They’ve got to put fences up on bridges. There will be people consumed by Louisville.”

There’s some truth to that statement, and there’s the possibility that Pitino is trying to stew the pot under John Calipari, the current Kentucky coach.

These two don’t share the best relationship. Pitino’s Cardinals went up against Calipari’s Memphis teams when they were both in Conference USA, and since Calipari has come to Lexington, the icy veneer on their relationship has only thickened.

Interestingly these two coaches have reversed their usual roles. Pitino, 59, was always the more established of the two. The dapper-dressed New Yorker coached teams like the New York Knicks, Kentucky Wildcats, Boston Celtics and Louisville Cardinals.

Meanwhile, Calipari, 53, was seen as a snake oil salesman, looking for opportunities to spin why his UMass, New Jersey Nets or Memphis teams mattered, and that he belonged with the Big Boys – but in a less dignified manner.

Before it would have been enough to simply share the court with a Pitino team, because in Calipari’s head that made them equal.

Now Calipari is the coach of resource-rich Kentucky, the winningest program in college basketball history, and Pitino is up the road, where he’s never been able to recruit as well as expected.

Pitino’s Louisville teams are gritty and resourceful, but have lacked that NBA lottery pick-caliber of player.

Calipari began stockpiling high draft picks at UMass with Marcus Camby (2nd-1996), then at Memphis with Derrick Rose (1st-2008) and Tyreke Evans (4th-2009).

Wasting no time, Calipari stepped into the mess at Kentucky left after the firing of Billy Gillispie, and had five players selected in the first round of the NBA Draft: John Wall (1st-2010); DeMarcus Cousins (5th-2010); Patrick Patterson (14-2010); Eric Bledsoe (18th-2010); and Daniel Orton (29th-2010).

In his second year, Calipari reached the Final Four and sent four more players to the NBA: Brandon Knight (8-2011); Enes Kanter (3-2011); Josh Harrellson (45-2011); and DeAndre Liggins (53-2011).

Calipari specializes in point guards, and has a reputation for taking young, talented players and getting them coached up to enter the NBA quick.

His dribble-drive offense is designed to replicate the style run by professional franchises. It requires playmakers, not role models, and is incumbent upon landing the top-level of high school talent each year.

Calipari is also known for exploiting the concept of one-and-done players; recruits so accomplished they will only stay one year in college before jumping to the NBA.

In this system talent supersedes everything else.

This has quickly drawn the ire of almost every fan base except for the one where Calipari is coaching. There’s venom outside the Bluegrass for how these Kentucky teams are built. One because it creates a revolving door in the program and necessitates constantly rebuilding. Also, it turns UK into a default NBA training facility.

But Calipari has the Big Blue winning. The Wildcats are back in the Final Four and favored to win. That is something UK fans might consider selling their children over.

What’s not to like? Try this.

Calipari is the only coach to direct three different colleges to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. He also is one of only two coaches to reach the Final Four with three different teams – Rick Pitino being the other coach by chance.

The problem, neither of those records are on the books.

The NCAA officially vacated Calipari’s 1996 UMass team’s Final Four appearance due to Marcus Camby accepting money from an agent.

The entire 2007-2008 season for the Memphis Tigers was vacated, including its NCAA run and national runner-up status due to academic violations by Derrick Rose.

The record John Calipari does hold is for being the only head coach to have a Final Four appearance vacated at more than one school.

Although Calipari wasn’t personally implicated in any of this wrong doing, the perception is he runs his programs fast and loose – whatever it takes to win and keep those draft picks coming in.

This is what haunts Kentucky in the dark. They know how close North Carolina, Kansas and Duke are behind their records. Losing 30-win seasons or taking down a championship banner would be devastating.

Check any message boards on the Web about the Final Four – there’s plenty of hate for Calipari to go around:

“UK = soon to be vacated championship.”

“Kentucky, I’m not a Fan, but I just hope that John C. don’t do to you what he did to the Memphis Tigers! I’m not a fan of them either, but that Man is just WRONG!”

I can hear the blue and white contingent screaming about Pitino’s sexual indiscretion with Karen Cunagin Sypher, and the tawdry extortion trial that ensued. I think all agree that wasn’t the brightest moment for Pitino or Louisville, but Sypher was found guilty.

* * * * *

SEC coaches voted John Calipari the 2011-2012 coach of the year after he led the Wildcats to a 30-1 record and a No. 1 national ranking. Freshman Anthony Davis was named Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year – accolades he is anticipated to win nationally, along with being named a first-team AP All-American.

The difference between Kentucky and Louisville is UK has a starting five that soon will be playing in the NBA. A couple of Louisville’s guys will get a shot, but Davis is going to be the number one overall pick in the NBA this year as a freshman.

After Knight jumped to the NBA last year, Calipari reloaded with Davis, guard Marquis Teague, forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and forward Kyle Wiltjer, to go along with returning starters Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and senior Darius Miller.

Make no mistake Jones and Lamb stuck around to win a title.

Pitino usually can get two guys with NCAA star power, then mixes glue guys around them – work horses that make limited mistakes and outwork their opponents.

Problem is these are jump shooting teams. Pitino doesn’t have a Davis, Jones, Antoine Walker, or Jamal Mashburn; monsters that can get in the lane, overpower players, and score easy baskets.

He has Peyton Siva (6-0), Chris Smith (6-2), and Kyle Kuric (6-4). Nice players, who at times couldn’t drain a three if they were shooting alone in an empty gym. But sometimes they do hit a pressure three with the game on the line, and that’s what makes Louisville an exciting to watch.

They are the quintessential college team. A bunch of young men who play great at times together and at others make mistakes. When Louisville limits those turnovers and don’t have a cold shooting night they can beat anyone.

Against Kentucky, Louisville’s guards will have to get their shots off over Miller (6-8), Doron Lamb (6-4) or Kidd-Gilchrist (6-7), UK’s version of a shutdown corner. It’s not impossible, but it is asking a lot of these Cards.

Pitino is one of the best at coaching under the single elimination format, which is the beauty of the NCAA tournament. A team only has to be good enough one time. Ask UNLV when Duke broke up the Rebels undefeated season in 1991, or Houston when NC State hung around to win in 1983.

Both coaches have tried to downplay the significance of this game, but you can read between the lines and watch their body language – this is big for both men.

“Dont’ worry about Louisville,” said Calipari. “Don’t worry about them. Let’s just worry about us. That’s what I’m trying to get across to our fans. I’m just worried about us playing at our best. If that’s not good enough, it’s been a heck of a season.”

It’s a noble effort by Coach Cal to downplay the rivalry, and off-handedly lay the groundwork for the worst case scenario, but it’s tongue-and-cheek. Calipari relishes stoking the fires of the Kentucky faithful. He knows just what buttons to push in order to maximize what he calls “The Kentucky Effect.”

For Pitino this breaks perfectly. Louisville is the underdog. They’re playing on house money this deep into March. Pitino will say all the right things leading up to the game, but would love to spoil UK’s victory parade.

Certainly Kansas and Ohio State are big Louisville fans Saturday. No one wants to play the Wildcats. The question from detractors is will the moment get too big and inexperience finally catches up with this freshman-dominated squad, or does their raw talent enable them to overcome any obstacles left in the road?

Kentucky has played two close games this season, at Indiana, and against Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament final – and lost both. When UK really needs a bucket it’s questionable who can deliver it. There’s plenty of guys on this squad willing to take pressure shots, but thus far it’s unclear if they can actually make them.

This Final Four is a talented field. There are no underdogs like Butler, VCU or George Mason to provide easy outs for the big schools. Kentucky, Kansas, Ohio State and Louisville have combined for 13 NCAA tournament championships.

The stars seem aligned for Kentucky to dance upon the madness. They finally got the tournament ride that usually goes to ACC darling Duke. The highest seeded team UK has faced is a #3.

The Final Four happens to be in New Orleans, where Kentucky played three weeks ago in the SEC tournament. There’s probably some members of Big Blue Nation still down on Bourbon Street awaiting their team’s return. More importantly, UK is already familiar with the charged atmosphere in the Big Easy, and all its sights and smells.

No one has gotten to within 12 points of UK so far. There is the feeling this young batch of Kitty Cats will finish in similar fashion to Kentucky’s 1996 team, nicknamed “The Untouchables,” who cruised through Syracuse to an NCAA title.

It’s arguable this Battle for the Bluegrass in the 2012 national semifinal might well be for the championship.

Kentucky beat Kansas 75-65 on a neutral floor earlier this season, and that game wasn’t as close as the score. The Cats were faster and better at every position. Yes Kansas has improved but so has Kentucky, particularly at the guard position.

In last year’s Sweet 16, a less-potent Kentucky team edged a better version of this year’s Ohio State squad.

If Louisville can’t find a way to stop the Big Blue Express, there may be no stopping Kentucky from hanging its eighth championship banner in Rupp Arena.

The Cards only lost by 7 to Kentucky in Lexington when they played on Dec. 31st. This should be an in-your-jersey, backyard brawl on the Bayou Saturday.

Perhaps as a nod to the basketball tradition at both schools, they will play in the first national semifinal, so the winner may rest and scout both Kansas and Ohio State when they tip at 8:49 ET.

Break out the Maker’s Mark, with a splash of Kentucky branch water, and may the best team win.

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3 Responses to Battle for the Bluegrass in the Big Easy

  1. Sov says:

    Rock Chalk Jayhawks!

  2. Maia Langley says:

    Easy on the “2nd rate community colleges”, amigo. Otherwise, this was a very enjoyable read.

  3. Peter Clavin says:

    “witty as a bag of hammers.” – nice line, Llama.

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