In the state of Kentucky, the two biggest name universities have a bitter rivalry. If you’ve lived in this state and followed Kentucky and Louisville, you recognize the hatred that the two programs have for each other.
The disdain transcends all sports and reaches out to every day fans – even those at dialysis centers.
The two schools have been playing regularly since the 80’s. Prior to this game, they have never met in the Final Four. That makes this game the biggest game in the history of this rivalry. Make no mistakes about it, this game is important. But it’s not just important for the rivalry between the two state institutions.
It’s important because of the implications that this game has.
Kentucky hasn’t won a national championship since 1998. Louisville hasn’t won a national championship since 1986. Neither team has set the world on fire reaching the national semi-finals in recent years either. Both schools have two appearances in the new millennium.
Many people say this is John Calipari’s best opportunity to win a national title. He’s got the players and as a group, they have the synergy to pull off this victory. Even as well as Kentucky has recruited since the arrival of Calipari, there’s no telling when things will come together this way again. So Kentucky has to look at this as a golden opportunity to grab their eighth national championship.
Calipari says he doesn’t need validating as a coach. He’s comfortable in his own skin and he’s recruiting at a level where he should make it back to another Final Four before you know it. And the Kentucky program speaks for itself. They are arguably the top program in college basketball history.
For Louisville, prior to the season, and even some during the season, there was a lot of talk that Rick Pitino had “lost a step” as a coach. Pitino used a great run in the post-season to win the Big East Tournament and reach the Final Four. Despite recent post-season disappointments, Pitino hasn’t been this loose with the media in several years. The Cardinals are currently on quite a roll under Pitino.
Pitino has won his national championship – in 1996, with Kentucky. But he’s also done a good job at Louisville, bringing them back from the difficult final years under Denny Crum. He’s recruited well and just reaching this Final Four may have been enough to put a big boost into this program which had been good but not great in recent years.
Both programs greatly desire to defeat the other and move on to face either Ohio State or Kansas for the whole shebang, but neither team needs this championship or even this win Saturday. I will say that it will be highly beneficial to both sides to win the game.
No matter what team wins the regular season contest, the team that wins in the Final Four can say they won the most important game, to date, in the history of this series.
Not only will they have the win, but the winner can also claim to have ruined either Kentucky’s dream season or Louisville’s Cinderella-like run to the Final Four. And the fan base of the winner will own ultimate bragging rights.
When the game is over, one group of fans will face heart-break and a lot of lip from their neighbors in the opposite color.
What both sides have to figure out is how to handle the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. No matter what the ultimate outcome, this writer hopes that each side can handle the hand they’re dealt and come out of this contest with a little more respect for the opponent.