Mark Story: Louisville launching NCAA journey in Rupp feels ... appropriate

mstory@herald-leader.comMarch 20, 2013 

On Tuesday night, Kentucky suffered a humiliating loss, bounced from the NIT by Robert Morris.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Louisville entered the Wildcats' lair — Rupp Arena — for an NCAA Tournament open practice session as the tourney's No. 1 overall seed.

In the never-ceasing rivalry between Kentucky and Louisville that defines the college hoops experience in our state, the juxtaposition between the schools could not have been greater.

On the Internet, U of L backers gloried in the contrast. There were 16 threads on the front page of the main basketball message board on the Louisville site dedicated to Kentucky's woes. One proclaimed that "the least popular boys names next year in Kentucky — "Robert" and "Morris." Further applying the needle, one U of L-oriented radio talk show had a random man named Robert Morris on the air as a guest Wednesday morning.

Yet if the Louisville players felt any Schadenfreude at the misfortune of UK, they did an admirable job hiding it.

"It's not a bad thing (UK) is not (still) playing and it's not a good thing," Louisville guard Russ Smith said. "I don't worry about them. They won a (NCAA) championship last year. I don't think they were worried about us."

U of L point guard Peyton Siva sympathized with Kentucky over the season-ending torn ACL suffered by freshman big man Nerlens Noel. "They would be right here with us," Siva said, "if Nerlens wouldn't have gotten hurt."

Even Rick Pitino would not publicly revel in the comeuppance of his coaching nemesis, John Calipari.

"They won a championship last year," Pitino said of Cal and UK. "They had one of the best teams we've gone against. So, they're rebuilding."

Still, for the first time since Calipari came to Kentucky on April Fool's Day 2009, Louisville and Pitino have the upper hand in our state's hoops grudgefest. At 6:50 p.m. Thursday, Louisville (29-5) will begin its quest for the school's third NCAA title, its first since 1986, against 16th-seeded North Carolina A&T (20-16).

Pitino has coached U of L to the Final Four in 2005 and 2012 and had another team, in 2009, claim the No. 1 overall NCAA tourney seed, but those close to the Cardinals program say the current edition is the best team the ex-Kentucky coach has had since coming to Louisville in 2001.

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The Cardinals are experienced, with four of their top six players back from last season's Final Four team. They are deep, getting a huge boost last week at the Big East Tournament from reserves Luke Hancock, Montrezl Harrell and Kevin Ware. And after a breathtaking second-half obliteration of Syracuse in the Big East finals, Louisville appears to be peaking at the proverbial right time.

The nation noticed. Basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy said on his blog this week that, out of 34 "experts" who had predicted an NCAA tourney champion on five major sports websites, 27 picked Louisville.

If U of L is to add the 2013 NCAA crown to the one Pitino won for Kentucky in 1996 — thus making the coach the first to ever win men's hoops titles at different schools — it seems somehow fitting that the journey will start in Rupp Arena.

Kentucky's run to its eighth NCAA championship last year began in the Cardinals' nest, the KFC Yum Center. "They played at our arena last year; we're playing in their arena this year," Pitino said.

Of course, this is not the first time the Cardinals have gotten the chance to paint Rupp red in March Madness. In 2007, Louisville played two NCAA games here: a blowout win over Stanford and a close loss to Texas A&M. In both, the crowd was overwhelmingly pro-Cardinals.

The sight in 2007 of all the Cardinals red filling Rupp was so surreal that longtime U of L radio play-by-play man Paul Rogers posted a picture he took of that scene on his Facebook page Wednesday. "It was just amazing to see that," Rogers said.

In 2007, Pitino marveled at being back in Rupp and not being treated like "Darth Vader."

It is expected that Louisville fans will again turn Rupp red this weekend.

"Hopefully we don't see that (UK) blue," Siva said, "and we see a whole lot of red."

On a week when up is down and down is up in Kentucky college basketball's marquee rivalry, the prospect of Rupp Arena filled with Cardinals red seems, somehow, logical.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: Twitter: @markcstory. Blog:

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