NEW ORLEANS — Kentucky coach John Calipari likes to say there are no rivalry games at this point in the season.
Try telling that to the Bluegrass State, where basketball’s version of the Civil War – Kentucky vs. Louisville, winner plays for the NCAA title – has so divided the state that senior citizens have actually come to fisticuffs.
“The fans take it as, whoever loses, it’s their funeral, really,” Louisville senior guard Chris Smith said. “It’s really cut-throat, I would say.”
Today’s game is the fifth time top-seeded Kentucky (36-2) and fourth-seeded Louisville (30-9) have met in the NCAA Tournament. They split the previous four meetings.
Basketball purists might argue Duke-North Carolina is the game’s most intense rivalry. But it is like a quaint tea party compared with the animosity between Kentucky and Louisville, which required government intervention to get them to schedule each other.
“We get along with most of them,” Kentucky fan Pat Stahl said of Louisville fans, “as long as they don’t talk to you.”
Or, heaven forbid, say something at a dialysis appointment. A 71-year-old Louisville fan punched a 68-year-old Kentucky fan earlier this week after their discussion over Saturday night’s game got out of hand.
To be fair, police say the Kentucky fan did flip off the Louisville fan.
“It all started with the racial lines in Kentucky,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said of the rivalry. “Now (it’s) no longer racially motivated. It’s just pure hatred.”
About the only thing the two schools have in common is Pitino, who led the Wildcats to one national title and two other Final Four appearances in eight years at Kentucky.
Forget that engendering any warm-and-fuzzy goodwill with the Kentucky folks, however. Now that Pitino isn’t theirs, Kentucky fans hate him, too.
“Since we got Rick, (the rivalry) is more on their part,” Louisville fan Robert Coke said. “They’re used to getting the cream of the crop and being top-notch, so it’s hard when they see someone else doing well.”
Kentucky never scheduled in-state schools under coach Adolph Rupp, and former assistant Joe B. Hall dutifully followed suit when he took over as coach. Gov. John Y. Brown stepped in following their matchup in the 1983 NCAA Mideast Regional finals, now known as The Dream Game, and told the schools to start playing each other.
Kentucky currently holds bragging rights in the annual in-state rumble, winning 18 of the 29 games, including a 69-62 victory at Rupp Arena on Dec. 31.
There are some fans who can view the rivalry with detachment, however.
When the Cardinals took the floor at an open practice Friday, one of those standing to applaud was Ken Berkins, proudly wearing his Kentucky blue after flying from the Middle East to see his beloved Wildcats in the Final Four.
“My family would probably hang me if they saw me clapping for Louisville,” Berkins admitted. “But we’re just unbelievably excited to have two teams from Kentucky in the Final Four.”