CRAWFORD | Welcome to the preeminent rivalry in college basketball
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- It is the premier rivalry in college basketball today. When Louisville and Kentucky meet in Indianapolis Friday night, it'll be for a berth in the NCAA's Elite Eight.
But this rivalry, in college basketball, is the Elite One.
Don't give me Duke-North Carolina. Yes, they're protected from early tournament meetings by their conference affiliation. But not once have they managed to play their way to an NCAA Tournament meeting.
There was a time I'd have listened to an argument about Indiana-Kentucky. They had a great tournament meeting two years ago, a 102-90 UK win. But the teams no longer play, and you can't have a rivalry if you don't play. This year, Indiana, the state, is relegated to host role while neighbors, Louisville, Kentucky, Michigan, even Tennessee descend on Lucas Oil Stadium.
North Carolina and Duke are at home. Kansas and Wichita State are at home. Syracuse, Georgetown, Villanova, all at home. Michigan and Michigan State can't meet until the title game. When they met in the Big Ten Tournament championship game nine days ago, it was the first time they'd ever played each other on a neutral court, in their 170th meeting. They've never met in the NCAA Tournament.
Friday's game will be the sixth post-season get-together in series history for Kentucky and Louisville, and it will be the second in three years.
That will tie the rivalry for third-most frequent NCAA Tournament pairing of all time. Some might say the NCAA is picking on the state. UK beat Western Kentucky and Louisville on its way to the 2012 title. The year before that Louisville fell to Morehead State. Two years prior, U of L beat Morehead State in its opening game. That's four out of the past six years that the committee has placed teams from Kentucky into each other's path. Check the brackets. You won't see North Carolina or Duke playing a team from their state during that time, nor Michigan and Michigan State.
This is The Rivalry, period: One regular season meeting, postseason showdowns in two of the past three years. The rest can take a seat for now.
Write it down.
It's not inappropriate that these two should see each other, however.
They're the winners of the past two national championships. One is a completely remade team. One is a team that had to redefine itself after winning the title a year ago.
Would it have been fitting to play one round later? Maybe. But like in golf, you have to play it where it lands.
It lands here.
These teams are coached by the two preeminent coaches in the game today.
Both men have recent back-to-back Final Fours. Both have won eight straight NCAA Tournament games.
A win for Pitino would make him the winningest active NCAA Tournament coach by percentage, pushing him past Mike Krzyzewski. If you count only on-the-court results, a win for Calipari would put him at No. 1 among active coaches. Vacated victories, however, keep that from being recognized by the NCAA.
Pitino won his 50th NCAA Tournament game last week. Calipari ended the bid of the first 35-0 team in NCAA history with a win over Wichita State a day later.
Nobody is representing the traditional college model at the moment with more success than Pitino. Nobody is taking elite Players from Point A to Point B, with Point B being the NBA, better than Calipari.
Maybe it's because I've been tending to an injured ankle. Maybe it's because we just went through all the pregame hype for this two years ago. Maybe I'm wrong. But to me, the hype doesn't seem as monumental this year, despite the huge storylines.
Las Vegas made U of L a 5 1/2-point favorite. I respect Vegas. Those are the guys who said Charlie Strong would be heading to Texas when I thought Charlie would rather wrestle a longhorn steer bare-handed than deal with the extracurricular demands of that job. Vegas knows.
But I also know my own eyes. UK didn't back into anything against Wichita State. That was a great team. And it played a great game. Kentucky, with its freshman starting lineup, played a better game.
The Wildcats are a match-up nightmare for a lot of teams, but particularly for Louisville.
Some ESPN writer yesterday wrote a story "re-seeding" the Sweet 16 and made UK a one seed and kept Louisville a No. 4. It shows two things: First, ESPN writers don't always pay attention (Louisville beat the "re-seeded" two seed Connecticut three times this season, including by 33 in the regular-season finale just three weeks ago. But whatever). And second, it shows that tournament performance is what matters, and UK's win over Wichita State was the most impressive tournament win this season.
Louisville does have a blueprint. Florida has beaten UK three times. It did it with timely shooting, competitive rebounding and smart play down the stretch. Pitino will be able to tell his players exactly what to do. But Kentucky has a blueprint too -- the game the teams played at Rupp Arena in December. Calipari will have a simpler set of instructions for his players: Just keep doing what you're doing.
Both of these teams are better than the teams that met each other on New Year's Eve.
I've been asked every time the rivals have played since, what's the best meeting between the two I can remember?
The answer there is easy. It was 2012, in the Final Four in New Orleans, when the state descended on a great American city and even the fans of the programs sensed the honor and significance of being there.
It was probably the first and only time I can remember the sides being relatively free of rancor, the odd incident at a dialysis center and national attempts to find feuds notwithstanding.
Tough teams await on the other side of the Midwest Regional bracket, but you can believe this: The winner of Friday night's meeting between UK and U of L is the team that likely will be heading to North Texas for the Final Four.
And this state, which has been to the Final Four in four straight seasons and won NCAA championships in the past three seasons (if you count Bellarmine's D-2 title in 2011) will continue a run of excellence unparalleled at the moment.
This meeting, frankly, would be more sweet in the Final Four, or at least the Elite Eight. But whenever it happens, it is sweet. I grew up playing these rivals against each other in a board game. There were no games to watch.
Every time they play, it is history.
North Carolina may have Tobacco Road. But Kentucky has the Road to the Final Four. And right now, no rivalry in college basketball has more style or substance.
With any luck, they will roll into Indianapolis and play a game that lives up to the moment.
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