Rumor has it that there is a big basketball game in Lexington tomorrow, and one would have to agree. While I certainly thought the North Carolina game was a little better barometer for where UK stands on a national level, certainly there aren’t many more bitter rivalries in college basketball than the one that exists between Louisville and Kentucky.
I tend to put rivalries in two categories-there are some rivalries that are good ones simply because the rivalry is competitive, the competition is fierce, there is good-natured fun between the two camps, yet the two teams/programs respect each other. This is the kind of rivalry that exists say between UK and Florida, Duke and North Carolina, or, at least until a couple of weeks ago, between UK and Indiana.
There are other rivalries, however, where there is genuine dislike between the two fan bases, and frankly, not a lot of respect between the two teams/programs. Kentucky and Tennessee come to mind, both in football and basketball, as does Alabama-Auburn. UK and Louisville certainly fall in this camp, and frankly, the bitterness between the two programs seems to have intensified over the past few years.
Yes, Rick Pitino being the coach at Louisville has always inflamed a certain part of the UK fanbase, and while I don’t necessarily agree with that reasoning, that part of it exists without question. Pitino’s liaisons with one Karen Sypher have been fodder for ridiculing Pitino, and he has deserved it, and Louisville’s handling of the whole episode has given UK fans a sense of self-righteousness.
However, the biggest factor that has fueled the fire of this rivalry has been the hiring of John Calipari as UK’s coach. The animus between Pitino and Calipari goes back two decades, and really hasn’t been masked that well, and both parties have done their part in keeping the dislike simmering between them. But Calipari seems to particularly enjoy sticking the needle into Pitino and the Louisville program, and to a certain extent, that has been rather enjoyable. Calipari is nothing if he isn’t a showman, and some of that is just that-show. He knows how to keep things going, and seems to enjoy it, and as long as that’s the extent of it, I don’t think there is anything wrong with it.
Where it crosses the line, however, is when it’s reflected on the court in cheap shots and taunting, and that has been the case recently too. I hope that isn’t the case this year.
As for the game itself, I think it comes down to tempo and execution. Kentucky is listed as a 12.5 point favorite in Vegas, and most people I have talked to think that’s about right. I think that is a little high, but still like UK by 6.
I think Louisville was exposed in their loss to Georgetown as a team that ran up a gaudy record against weak competition. U of L has been ranked in the top five most of the year, but they have never been one of the top five teams in the country. Computer rankings have them as being between 11-16, and I think that is a little closer to where they really are nationally.
To win, U of L has to force the game into a half court, grind it out type of game while hitting three pointers. Louisville is a good defensive team, and certainly has more depth than UK, so foul trouble is another area that the Cardinals could exploit to their advantage.
UK has the advantage at every position, however, with the exception of point guard. If UK has one major vulnerability against the Cardinals, it could be Teague at point guard if Louisville chooses to press. Teague turns the ball over way too often, but I just don’t know that Louisville wants to get in a run-and-gun type of game against the Cats.
If one thing has proven itself in this rivalry over the years, the intensity can let anything happen, and certainly Rupp Arena will be in a frenzy tomorrow afternoon. If UK can channel that energy and play poised and with passion like they did against North Carolina, they have the potential to win with relative ease.
I like the Cats 77-70.