Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Sports

Kentucky Wildcats, Louisville Cardinals renew unfriendly rivalry in NCAA Tournament

NEW ORLEANS

The journey is 77 miles of ill will, most of them punctuated by basketball backboards and loud voices.

To take the trip from Louisville to Lexington, Ky., you take I-64 East past arrogance, past betrayal, on the other side of loathing. You take a left at elitism, then a right at insecurity, then another left at intolerance. If you get to a peaceful coexistence, obviously, you have traveled too far.

These are the Cats, and those are the Cardinals. In between, there is mostly hatred. When it comes to the rivalry between the University of Kentucky and Louisville, there isn't much you need to know. You are red, or you are blue. You are one of Cal's pals, or you are one of Pitino's patrons.

In Kentucky, you can vote for whomever you want, and you can worship wherever you please, and you can make fun of Daniel Boone's hat if you feel like it. But when it comes to basketball, there are no neutral parties.

And so it is that the entire state, it seems, has relocated to New Orleans to watch a basketball game. There was a fight on Bourbon Street on Wednesday night between Kentucky fans and Louisville fans, and the only surprise is it is no longer going on.

"This," said Louisville point guard Chris Smith, "is going to be the most amped-up Final Four game in the history of college basketball."

To understand just how fierce this game is, to understand just how much it will matter back to the fans of either school, you have to understand a little more about what might be the most contentious rivalry in college basketball. Go ahead. Talk about North Carolina and Duke, or Michigan and Michigan State or Indiana and Purdue. This one has a little more bite than any of them.

For years, Kentucky fans mostly ignored Louisville until it was time to talk about how many trophies their team had won. There were elements of class — and of race — in the disdain.

"People always ask me about the best rivalry," said Rick Pitino, the Louisville coach who used to have the same job at Kentucky. "People will say North Carolina and Duke because it's in the same league. I have a different perspective.

"It all started with racial lines. We're the minority university. They're the university of the privileged. That was thrown out the window when Tubby Smith became the first African-American coach (at Kentucky), and the hatred wasn't based on race any longer. Now it's just hatred."

Why? Because Kentucky fans believe the court is their birthright. Because Louisville fans feel like a scorned little brother. Because Kentucky has won seven NCAA titles. Because since 1980, the titles are tied 2-2. Because Louisville's presence here is a surprise. Because Kentucky's isn't. And because a 71-year-old man named Charles Taylor punched a 68-year-old man named Ed Wilson in the snoot because they disagreed on who was going to win Saturday night's game.

By now, you have heard of the dustup. Both Taylor and Wilson, it seems, were waiting for treatment at the kidney dialysis center in Georgetown, Ky. Taylor was talking about how the Cards were going to win, and Wilson disagreed, and Taylor took a swing. It was a hard foul, you might say.

"Did we win the fight?" Pitino said, grinning.

"A Louisville fan punched a Kentucky fan?" Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "I'm very disappointed about that."

Just guessing here, but more punches might come before the final result.

"I go to Wendy's, and there's a big Cats fan working there," said Louisville point guard Peyton Siva. "He says 'Oh, did you see the Cats win the other day?' Man, I don't want to hear that. I just want to get my food."

For the record, Calipari says the rivalry doesn't matter; not now, not here. Ask Calipari, and he'll tell you Kentucky's opponent might as well come from a thousand miles away.

"If you play it as a rivalry game — let's hate those guys, let's be angry, let's hate that coach — what that is physiology, in your body, hatred and fear are really close," Calipari said. "We respect them. They are playing great basketball. They're playing as well as anyone in the country, and we know it. We know they're close to us, but it didn't matter who we were playing."

It seems to matter to the Louisville players. Smith, for one, referred to Kentucky's fans as "arrogant" twice.

"They're so arrogant, they probably think they're going to win by 25," Smith said.

Louisville's players, on the other hand, seem to enjoy reminding everyone that all of the pressure is on Kentucky. Yes, it is. The Wildcats are favored, and they're the tournament's No. 1 overall seed.

"There will be people at Kentucky that will have a nervous breakdown if they lose to us," Pitino said last week. "You've got to watch. They've got to put the fences up on bridges. There will be people consumed by Louisville."

For the record, Pitino acknowledges the stakes are the same for his team. You get close only so many times. Losing would be hard for Louisville fans, too.

Either way, the Kentucky police should be at the ready late Saturday night.

If someone loses a close game on a questionable call, who knows what kind of rumble might go down at the local clinic?

LocationLexingtonLouisville

City population295,803741,096

CountyFayetteJefferson

University founded1865 1798

Enrollment28,00022,249

Presidential politicsVoted for Barack Obama in 2008: Fayette: 51.7% Jefferson: 55.5%

Most famous nativeGeorge ClooneyMuhammad Ali

Less famous nativeJim VarneyFuzzy Zoeller

Beverage of choiceWild TurkeyMint julep

Top culinary contributionLong John Silver'sPapa John's

Final Fours/national titles15/7 9/2

Slogan"Louisville "Neither do doesn't exist."Calipari's previous Final Four trips."

Instate players/starters4/0 3/0

Best hairAnthony Davis' Rick Pitino's unibrowslicked-back mane

Best player moniker "Sky" Walker"Never Nervous" Pervis

Best team moniker"The "Doctors Unforgettables"of Dunk"

Best team1995-961979-80

Most famous coachAdolph RuppDenny Crum

Less famous coachBilly GillispieLawrence Apitz

Most famous female fanAshley JuddDiane Sawyer

Most hated playerChristian LaettnerRex Chapman

Most hated coachRick PitinoJoe B. Hall

Best proDan IsselDarrell Griffith

Worst proSam Bowie"Out of Service" Pervis Ellison

Source: Mark Schlabach, ESPN.com

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