Mark Story: Rivalry aside, try to appreciate the treat of living in THE basketball state

mstory@herald-leader.comMarch 27, 2014 

  • FRIDAY

    Kentucky vs. Louisville

    What: NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional semifinal

    Where: Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis

    When: About 9:45 p.m.

    TV: CBS-27

    Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

INDIANAPOLIS — Blue and Red will always be our state's oil and water.

Cats vs. Cards.

"Out in the state" vs. the big city.

In recent years, "Players first" vs. "Louisville first."

For the second time in three years, the commonwealth's signature sports rivalry will command the national platform that is the NCAA Tournament. On Friday night around 9:45 p.m., No. 8 seed Kentucky (26-10) will face No. 4 seed Louisville (31-5) in the Midwest Region round of 16 before an expected 40,000-plus fans in a sold-out Lucas Oil Stadium.

Before Kentuckians split into the warring tribes that are Wildcats and Cardinals backers, however, I hope fans can take one moment and savor what a special moment in the sports history of our state we are living in.

Two years ago, in the first Final Four meeting ever between UK and U of L, John Calipari's Wildcats subdued Rick Pitino's Cardinals en route to the 2012 NCAA championship. Last season, it was Pitino and U of L that cut down the NCAA tourney nets. Going into Friday's showdown, the combined record of Kentucky and Louisville over the past three NCAA Tournaments is 20-1 — and the loss came in a game pitting the two.

As theater, a Kentucky-Louisville meeting operates on two separate planes. One is what will happen in the game. The other is what is at stake among the fan bases. There is a school of thought emerging that the 2014 NCAA tourney battle between UK and U of L may actually carry more tension among the fans than the 2012 Final Four matchup did.

"That 2012 meeting was the most congenial Kentucky-Louisville (game) I've ever seen," said Paul Rogers, the longtime U of L radio play-by-play man. "Kentucky had such a good team, and for Louisville that run to the Final Four was so unexpected. For U of L fans, that game was sort of like playing with house money."

Conversely, this year, a Louisville defeat would sandwich the Cardinals' 2013 NCAA title with tourney losses to Kentucky in 2012 and '14. "I know the Kentucky fans would really use that to give the business to the Louisville fans," said Rogers.

For UK backers, the 2013-14 season has been a wild ride. The regular season began with talk of the Cats going 40-0 and ranked No. 1 in the country. It ended with Kentucky out of the polls and with 10 losses. Then last Sunday, the Wildcats shed "the disappointment" off their season by stunning previously unbeaten Wichita State in a round of 32 thriller.

Yet a loss to archrival Louisville five days later would undo a lot of the good feelings that came from shocking the Shockers.

"Any time you lose to a rival, it's worse than just losing a normal game," said UK radio play-by-play man Tom Leach. "But I'd like to think that, with a little passage of time, most Kentucky fans would feel good about where this team has ended up. If you are a fan of a program the magnitude of a Kentucky, a Louisville or an Alabama football, you don't have any right to expect a national championship every year. But you do have a right to expect to contend for a national title most years. And that's where Kentucky and Louisville are — they both have a realistic chance (to win the 2014 title)."

The game itself projects to be a fascinating clash of contrasts.

Louisville starts three guards, led by All-American Russ Smith, and is heavily reliant on perimeter scoring. Kentucky boasts two 7-footers and, in 6-9 Julius Randle, has an All-America power forward. Can the Cardinals scramble the game with quickness? Or will the taller Wildcats "play over the top" of U of L as they did in winning 73-66 on Dec. 28 in Rupp Arena?

In their college rivalry, Calipari is 10-9 against Pitino, but Ricky P. leads 2-1 in NCAA Tournament games. Then again, the coach who was working at Kentucky — Pitino in 1992 and '96; Calipari in 2012 — has won all three NCAA meetings between the two.

All involved downplayed the importance of the rivalry aspect to Friday night's game. "I have told the team," Calipari said, "we will not make this game bigger than it is. It's an NCAA Tournament game."

Said Louisville swingman Luke Hancock: "Our goal is the Elite Eight. There's a team standing in our way, like any other team would be."

For my money, there are really only four states where college basketball is the pre-eminent sport. The state of North Carolina does not have one team in the 2014 NCAA men's tournament round of 16. Neither does Kansas. The state of Indiana didn't even put a team into the 2014 NCAA Tournament.

The commonwealth of Kentucky is about to witness an NCAA tourney game between its two signature men's basketball programs with UK and U of L as the two most recent national champions.

That's a cool thing.

"It is," said UK fifth-year senior guard Jon Hood, a Madisonville product. "We are a basketball state."

In this moment, Kentucky is the basketball state.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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