LEXINGTON, Ky. — This Bluegrass State rivalry runs deep, and the divide is wide.
Just 70 miles apart, Lexington and Louisville are worlds apart when it comes to college basketball. Come Saturday when the Cardinals and Wildcats meet at the Final Four in New Orleans, a berth in the national title game is just the beginning.
Here, the game is likened to a civil war.
Pick a side: Wildcats or Cardinals. Rupp’s Runts or the Doctors of Dunk. Dan Issel or Wes Unseld. John Calipari or Rick Pitino.
“If the excitement and frenzy and turbulence that’s been stirred up in Kentucky this week could be harnessed, we could solve our energy crisis,” Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor. “Basketball fans from Kentucky have been waiting their whole lives for this game.”
This is the grudge match to end them all.
It’s the fifth time the schools will meet in the NCAA Tournament – the two sides have split the four previous meetings – and it pits Louisville coach Pitino against one-time friend and now frosty foe Calipari. Not to mention Kentucky freshmen phenoms Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who have been steady in taking the Wildcats to the top, vs. a ragtag flock of Cardinals who’ve won eight in a row with a rotating cast of mostly unknowns such as Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng.
“It’s not about (Pitino) or I; it’s about these players,” said Calipari, who’s in his second consecutive Final Four still searching for the national title that’s eluded him. “Hopefully we both have our teams ready to play, and I think we will, and we’ll go at it.”
The Cardinals lost this year’s matchup vs. the Wildcats 69-62 on Dec. 31. Even though there is much more on the line Saturday, it will be difficult for the game to be much more intense.
“There’s going to be so much pressure on the players,” former Louisville forward Earl Clark said. “It’s going to go down in history. Kentucky is the No. 1 team, and Louisville is like the Cinderella of the tournament.”
Kentucky blue dominates most of the state of more than 4.3 million basketball-crazed fans, surrounding the outnumbered Cardinals fans who have fortified a stronghold in the state’s largest city.
The fan bases are about as different as they can be, and Pitino is one of the few who knows what it’s like on both sides of the aisle.
He coached Kentucky for eight years, bringing the ’Cats back to the pinnacle of greatness with an NCAA title in 1996. He’s been at Louisville for the past 11 years and is heading to his second Final Four with the Cardinals.
“It’s two different entities, really, it’s two rabid fan bases,” Pitino said.
That was oh so clear this week when two senior citizens duked it out at a Georgetown dialysis clinic.
A 68-year-old Kentucky fan and 71-year-old Louisville fan were arguing Monday about who will win Saturday’s game when the discussion quickly got out of hand. Georgetown police Lt. Robert Swanigan says the Kentucky fan flipped off the Louisville fan, prompting the Cardinals fan to punch him in the face. Though police were called, Swanigan said the Kentucky fan declined to file charges.
Kentucky vs. Louisville is a matchup of cultural divide that’s steeped in history with nine combined titles between the two schools, the same number as the more publicized North Carolina-Duke rivalry.