CRAWFORD | National media pits U of L vs. UK - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | They're not playing, but U of L, UK still pitted against each other

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) -- Rick Pitino walked through the corridors of Rupp Arena toward the large media interview area on Wednesday, greeted by a few nods and waves from blue-clad folks and NCAA Tournament volunteers along the way.

There were a couple of, "Good luck, coach," comments and even a, "Keep it in the state."

This is not exactly the kind of stuff that fits the preferred storyline for the University of Louisville's trip to Rupp Arena to open NCAA Tournament play this week. The storyline, apparently, is to pit the University of Kentucky against U of L even though the two can't play, to compare and contrast the programs, one a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the other just having been bounced from the NIT.

It would help, in fact, if the Cardinals would dance on the Wildcats freshly filled grave of a season, just a bit. Kind of a gloater's version of the Harlem Shake, maybe.

None of that, of course, is happening. You can find fans willing to cooperate with that narrative, as you might with any rivalry, but players and coaches? Not happening.

That doesn't mean the national media isn't trying. It's nothing new for the programs to be compared in everything from within this state. It is a bit new for the issue to receive the full-court press outside it when the two aren't playing against each other.

A couple of weeks ago, USA Today ran a story in which, according to the headline, Pitino and UK coach John Calipari were said to "debate" one-and-dones. Except that neither ever directly spoke about or to each other.

And with U of L about to begin NCAA Tournament play in Rupp Arena, apparently the juxtaposition of the two programs is too tempting to ignore, particularly after UK was bounced from the NIT by Robert Morris.

That sent reporters at Wednesday's pre-NCAA Tournament media day sniffing for some sign of satisfaction around U of L's players and coaches. What they found didn't exactly match up with the storyline they'd planned -- but likely didn't stop the stories.

"Sometimes fans really think it's like a huge, hated rivalry," U of L's Luke Hancock said when asked about UK. "It's not quite like that with the players. We don't wish them to have a bad season or anything like that, and not be here."

Pitino was asked by a New York writer if he realized what a polarizing figure he was in Lexington. He seemed a bit bemused that the question would come up.

"Well, we've been here before," he said. "Three, four years ago we were in town [for the NCAA Tournament], and we got great support. Obviously our fans were able to come. It's a little different because they (UK) -- they played at our arena last year, we're playing in their arena this year. We shared the same facilities, we play each other.

". . . This rivalry was built a long, long time ago before I was born, when they didn't play each other and there was almost -- they almost had to pass legislation to play each other and then both schools agreed."

One year ago, the programs met in the Final Four. I don't know if that changed the rivalry at all, but it was, for me, the first time the fan bases came to an event pretty much focused and into their own teams more than despising the other. There was so much at stake, that the animosity seemed to take a back seat for that moment in that place, even if there were a few flash fires at home.

Armageddon came and went, and the two survived. UK won a national championship, but U of L did not wither away. It returned, in fact, to beat UK this season and enter the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed. UK lost in the first round of the NIT, but its fan base was buoyed in less than 24 hours by the commitment of Julius Randle, another Top 10 recruit, which gives Calipari the No. 1-ranked recruit at point guard, shooting guard, power forward and center coming in next season. Plus some others.

The cataclysms, then, just aren't what they used to be. Even Pitino's departure and reemergence at U of L has lost a bit of its sting, except for a segment of UK fans who will never give an inch of credit, never see anything of redeemable value in his work. Still, UK has had three coaches since Pitino departed. Two of them won national titles. It is, as they say, getting by.

The two fan bases, of course, won't abide each other often. If and when Calipari offloads players from his recent NIT team to make room for more talented players, the same UK fans who railed when Pitino encouraged players to leave will see nothing wrong with it. And the same U of L fans who were fine with Pitino doing it will rail about Calipari.

Those are fans. Among the programs, and the players, they're not BFFs, but they're also not irrational. Sometimes, in fact, they're even polite.

Reporters tried to get Peyton Siva to bite with a question about UK losing in the NIT, and asked whether it would be more satisfying to win in Lexington than somewhere else.

"For me personally, I'm just happy not to play Kentucky here because I haven't had a great success playing against Kentucky at Kentucky," Siva said. "But it feels good to have the number 1 overall seed, to play, like I said, in a closer location for our fans to come get a chance to watch us.  And, you know, we look forward to going out there and playing as hard as we would on any other court."

When UK played in the KFC Yum! Center last season, it was a bit of a bigger deal because the Wildcats had never been the home team in the new building. But the national championship wasn't any sweeter because the road went through Louisville.

In fact, there's a feeling between the programs that these tournaments need to continue to be played in the state's two major arenas. North Carolina and Duke have had this advantage for years. The Kentucky schools should have the same.

These programs are never going to be BFFs. Few rivals are. But increasingly, both have had much bigger things than the rivalry to worry about lately, no matter what the national narrative might be.

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