INDIANAPOLIS (WDRB) -- Across the state of Kentucky, the NCAA Sweet 16 has taken on an added luster -- and certainly some added intensity -- with the University of Louisville and University of Kentucky meeting Friday night in Indianapolis.
The NCAA and city of Indianapolis certainly have been beneficiaries of the rivalry's popularity, with ticket sales for the game approaching 40,000 in Lucas Oil Stadium.
But inside the two programs, their locker rooms and their practices, this isn't about rivalry. It's about advancing.
In fact, on Thursday when I talked to players in both locker rooms, the common theme was that when it comes to a game with as much on the line as this one, the rivalry seems to be taking a back seat.
"It has to," University of Louisville senior Stephan Van Treese said. "Yeah, we're rivals, but there are bigger things to play for here. For both teams. We want to take a step closer to the Final Four. That's the big prize here. You can't get distracted with what people are saying on social media or stuff like that."
UK sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein comes from Kansas. He has an outsider's view of the rivalry and says he gets a kick out of watching two fan bases he sees as essentially the same repeatedly bad-mouth each other.
"The fans are the same, just different teams," Cauley-Stein. "It doesn't really mean much to you if you're not from Kentucky. If you're not from Kentucky, you don't understand it. I've been here two years -- I still don't understand it. You can ask a UK fan about the rivalry, then ask a Louisville fan about the rivalry, and they say the same kind of trash talk about each other. . . . It's funny. They're so similar. That's why it's funny. You all are really the same, saying the same thing, just on the other side of it."
In fact, paying attention to rivalry matters can be a distraction, one that players on both sides said they're trying to avoid.
"To me, I just want to make it to the Elite Eight," Kentucky guard Andrew Harrison said. "This is just another great team we have to play."
Louisville senior Luke Hancock wasn't having much rivalry talk either. Nor did he put any credence in the notion that having played in the Sweet 16 before, even in this same building on the same court, would be of any advantage to the Cardinals.
"It doesn't help that much," Hancock said. "It's not a big advantage. Once you get between the lines, you have to play. You have to execute. . . . Our goal is to get to the Elite Eight. This is a Sweet 16 game. We're going to treat it like any other game, go prepare the way we always do for any other team, whether it's Duke, UNC, whoever we're playing. We're going to go in and prepare the same way, Manhattan, St. Louis, whoever it is, we're going to go about our business the same way.
U of L coach Rick Pitino noted that he's now been involved with the rivalry for a long time. And he said that there is something special about this meeting, just like the Final Four meeting between the programs two years ago.
"I've been in the state 20 years, and the game to me has really only had difficult consequences for the loser twice," Pitino said. "Once was two years ago when they stopped our run in the Final Four, and the other -- the next game we play. "
The teams met in December, a 73-66 UK victory, but again, players were in agreement that the meeting means little. U of L players said they did watch tape of that game once, but spent more time focusing on UK's games in the SEC Tournament, and its NCAA Tournament games.
"We were a team looking for our identity then, and they're a completely different team with the way they're playing now," Hancock said. "We're a much better defensive team. We didn't even know our rotations then, had guys who were still learning the offense and defense. And they're playing much better, getting great guard play, shooting the ball with confidence. You have to be impressed with the toughness they developed over the course of the season, that's the main thing to me."
Andrew Harrison said, "The adversity we've been through has become an advantage. We've gone through so much this year, up and down games, that nothing really surprises us, even though we're young. A lot of people don't think we can beat this team, but we're going to go out and fight."
The prize is a big one. But for the teams themselves, the rivalry can wait.
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