Saturday, March 31, 2012 will be the most important day in the history of the state of Kentucky.
There, it’s definitely a bit of hyperbole, but I said it. One could make the argument that a game involving college students throwing an orange ball into a basket couldn’t (or shouldn’t) be the most important day in the long history of a proud commonwealth.
But they’d be wrong. It’s not that Kentucky lacks important historical anecdotes (Abraham Lincoln was born in Hodgenville, KY on February 12, 1809); it’s just that this is a state that is absolutely obsessed with basketball, and that’s putting it lightly.
University of Kentucky Wildcats and the University of Louisville Cardinals.
Every man, woman, and child in Kentucky has an undying allegiance to one of these two schools. This affinity is usually indoctrinated at a young age and lasts for life. Some have interesting ways of showing their fanhood, but all bleed for their team. The only question is: what color?
Those who bleed blue scoff at the fan base of those who bleed Cardinal Red. But, Big Blue Nation could mock just about any fan base, as they boast what is considered by most everyone to be the largest fan base in the country. Big Blue is also time after time ranked the best fan base in the country, although Louisville doesn’t fall far behind, placing No. 8 in this particular ranking.
Not to be outdone, Louisville topped Forbes list of the country’s most valuable teams, with Kentucky trailing just a few spots behind at number five.
When it comes to tradition, Kentucky is once again the team to beat. The Wildcats are the winningest program in college basketball in both all-time wins and all-time winning percentage, hold the record for most tournament appearances, tournament wins, Sweet Sixteens, Elite Eights, and have the second most NCAA Championships with seven.
On the other hand, Louisville is no slouch, standing No.18 in all-time wins, No. 9 in all-time winning percentage, No. 5 in tournament appearances, No. 6 in tournament wins, and owning two national championships of their own.
Despite what Cats fans would like to admit, due mostly to their own preeminence, the Cards have an impressive tradition too. But the perception of tradition is where the two fan bases really start to disagree.
Cards fans generally regard Cats fans as crazed followers of a tradition that’s too old to matter (4 of Kentucky’s 7 National Championships came before 1959), and Cats fans by and large just look at Louisville as their little brother.
Adding to these long-standing opinions, Coach John Calipari’s arrival in Lexington ushered in Louisville’s insistence that they prefer their experience over Coach Cal’s ‘one-and-dones,’ who in their estimation are incapable of truly getting it done in the National Championship. In response, Cats fans usually point to results with Cal’s 3-0 record against the Cards while at UK, as well as their greater tournament success the past two years.
But after the role of players in winning a title argument, there’s the ugly side of things. Louisville fans will vehemently vow Calipari is nothing but a cheater, that any previous and future banners will be vacated, and that Cal is the poster boy for everything that is wrong in college basketball. A Lexingtonian would simply cite what I’ll dub “recruit envy,” as well as adding to the ugly aspect by surely bringing up Rick Pitino’s infamous scandal.
So there’s clearly a difference of opinion on everything from the perception of tradition, the roles of players, and even what makes a head coach an evil man. It doesn’t make either fan base correct, but hey, that’s part of what makes it a great rivalry.
Much more than great, as this is a rivalry that is consistently rated as the best, or the second best rivalry in the country behind Duke and UNC. But, on Saturday it totally eclipses the Tobacco Road Rivalry. The upcoming Kentucky Louisville game will be the first time two in-state teams have faced off in the Final Four since Ohio State and Cincinnati did in 1962. Although OSU and UC hardly like each other, they’re not rivals in any sense of the word. This makes Saturday the first time two in-state rivals battled for a spot in the NCAA Championship Game.
If you look up rivalry in the dictionary, well you’ll find the definition of rivalry, but a picture of any Kentucky Louisville game could teach the meaning of the word in any language. Let’s just call it like it is – these schools HATE each other. Just how much do they hate each other? In what is one of the better stories in recent memory, two 70 year old men got into a fight over the game at a dialysis center yesterday, so I'd say the hatred runs pretty deep.
So what’s on the line Saturday? A place in the NCAA Championship Game would be enough, but no, there’s also bragging rights for a year. It’s the chance to deride your family, friends, and co-workers that weren’t as fortunate to come out on the winning side.
For Louisville, they could crush the dreams of Big Blue Nation in the year they have ordained themselves as inevitable champions, and for Lexington, they could revel in beating Louisville again en route to a title game. It’s hard to say what the winning team would be more excited about, the upcoming championship chance or the elimination of their hated rival.
Either way, Saturday is a microcosm of the entire rivalry. Louisville comes in as the underdog with the chance to take down the mighty Cats and show those ostentatious Cats fans that history means nothing and the one-and-done system doesn’t work. The Cats have another chance to beat Louisville, pat the Cards on the back and say “awe it was cute how you thought you could beat us little bro.”
However it goes down, I can guarantee you that this will be college basketball at its best. Two in-state rivals with two of the most passionate fan bases and two of the best traditions collide in the Big Easy on Saturday. Only one can emerge from the battle with bragging rights and a chance to win the National Championship.
Two things are for sure, a team from the Commonwealth of Kentucky will be playing for all the marbles on Monday, and we all are lucky enough to get to witness the rivalry unfold on Saturday. Even if you’re not a Kentuckian – if you’re not hyped for this one, you don’t have a pulse.