CRAWFORD | UK vs. U of L: You might hate your rival, but it's hard not to like these teams
While the fans are at each other's throats as always, you'll find little animosity between the teams when Kentucky visits Louisville at 7 p.m. tonight in the KFC Yum! Center.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Whether it's the rivalry that has changed over the years, or me, I can't tell for sure. I suspect both. The University of Kentucky vs. the University of Louisville in basketball used to be blood sport. It's still no family reunion.
But I don't feel the animus I used to feel among the participants, even if ESPN did hype the game this week like it hasn't been hyped in a long time.
The teams will meet tonight at 7 p.m. in the KFC Yum! Center, and the fans will be just as edgy as ever. The coaches will want to win as much as they ever do. The players will rise to the national stage and big-game atmosphere.
I mean, of all things, fans have been bickering for two days about a decision by Louisville's Waterfront Development Corp. to hold a fundraiser between UK and U of L fans, with the fan base that donates the most money getting to have the bridge lit in its team's color. Louisville fans are ticked off that they have to bid to have their own city light a bridge in their team color. Kentucky fans are mad because they thought they'd won the bidding, only to have the time extended and a large last-minute donor come forward and tilt the balance to Louisville.
Jill Stein will be arriving in town Thursday to challenge the results. Is it wrong of me not to care what color any bridge in Louisville is lit?
Maybe I am a part of the problem. Maybe the nation is so divided politically that fissures over sports seem a little less serious.
But look, these two programs have been through a lot, and they have a lot yet to go through. They've now met twice in the NCAA Tournament since 2012, once in the Final Four, and once in a game that might as well have been a Final Four elimination game, in 2014.
After that 2014 loss, a bitter one for Louisville, probably the most bitter for either team since I've been covering these games, Louisville senior Russ Smith sat and talked about how much respect he had for Kentucky's players and its program, about how he wished them well. I thought about another loss in Louisville, to Kentucky later that year when freshman Tyler Ulis carried the Wildcats to a win, watching two Louisville players I won't name leave the arena, talking excitedly about something, a song or a video game, I couldn't tell, as they headed up the side stairway and across Main Street.
What I took away from it is that for the players, these games are big. But they aren't anything close to what they are for the fans. These guys had shaken off any visible effects of a loss to their arch-rival in an hour. I could've walked next door to a bar and found people who wouldn't be over it for days.
As somebody who has spent a bit of time around players for both teams in this season's game, I'm here to tell you that you'd have to look pretty hard for a player to dislike on either squad. These are kids with good attitudes who play hard and have fun.
Kentucky has a bunch of blue-chip guys but they aren't spoiled. Twice this week, Louisville coach Rick Pitino has gone out of his way to mention De'Aaron Fox, Kentucky's freshman point guard, saying, "I love him as a person and as a player. . . . He was my favorite player I've seen in the past 3-4 years in terms of what he brings to the table."
Fox visited Louisville on a recruiting trip before eventually committing to Kentucky. One of his hosts on that trip was Louisville's Donovan Mitchell, also about as good a kid as you could ask for in your program.
"We all liked Fox," Mitchell said. "He's a special player."
Malik Monk? How do you not like the way he plays? He's athletic, exciting, and when he's in the zone, he shoots without conscience. He pulled up in front of his coach at the end of Kentucky's win over North Carolina, and with Calipari urging him to drive, rose up and buried a three-pointer.
Kentucky is wildly athletic. Frankly, these Wildcats have a little bit of the vintage Louisville teams in them, the quick leaping ability, the speed up the court. And why not? They have former Louisville great Kenny Payne coaching for them. Louisville fans won't like me saying it, but Calipari has a little Denny Crum in him, as well. They used to say Crum just rolled the balls out and let his players play. They say the same thing about Calipari.
It's no more true now than it was then
In the Louisville locker room, if you want to spend an entertaining afternoon, go hang with Deng Adel, Anas Mahmoud or Matz Stockman. Listen to Mangok Mathiang try to stir guys up. These guys don't know how good a team they are yet. I suspect they're a better team than they know.
The biggest flashpoint left in this rivalry is the coaches.
Every year, one of them has to get asked about their "relationship." Calipari put it this way.
"We’re 90 miles away from each other," Calipari said. "Coach at competitive rival schools. It’s hard to send each other Christmas Cards. I have known him for 25 years. I know how good of a coach he is. He is a great coach. He’s a Hall of Fame Coach. He has won at everywhere he has been. National championships, Final Fours. Come on, you know how good he is. And we’re in the same state 90 miles away from each other trying to carve out our own thing. We’re not mean to each other, not nasty to each other. At Augusta (during the Peach Jam) he and I worked out together and had a conversation for 35 minutes. We worked out for 30 minutes and talked back and forth. Would you have liked to have a camera on that? We talked about his son and we talked about what was going on and we just went back and forth.”
Pitino has spent the week talking not only about Kentucky's speed and talent, but about how well-coached the Wildcats are, that they don't turn the ball over much, or make mistakes to beat themselves.
“I’m happy when it is over," Calipari said. "Just get it done. I mean, everyone makes it life or death and it’s not life or death. It’s worse than that. I guarantee Rick is the same way. Let’s just play the game and let’s go. We have our league to deal with. He has his league to deal with. Let’s just move on.”
For Louisville, the game is a bit different because it's the first in a boxed set. The Cardinals will follow it with their Atlantic Coast Conference opener against No. 12-ranked Virginia, then will face No. 16 Indiana before traveling to No. 25 Notre Dame.
"I know what it means to the fans," Pitino said. "But we're not going to prepare different. We're not going to coach different. This is a game for the players."
"I'm excited for all of those games," Mitchell said. "They're the kind of games you want to play."
Monk, asked about the Louisville rivalry, said, "I haven’t really heard anything, really. I knew they’re both from Kentucky. I’m from Arkansas so I didn’t know much about it so I hadn’t heard much about it. . . . I’ve seen them a little bit but I never paid attention to them. We’re going to watch film today and tomorrow and I’ll see a lot.”
Chances are, he'll hear a lot of animosity from the stands once he steps onto the court at the KFC Yum! Center. But he's not likely to hear it on the court. You may not like your rival in this game, but it's hard not to like these teams.
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