Why Kentucky vs. Louisville Is the Best Rivalry in NCAA Basketball
Anyone that has been around NCAA athletics very long knows that the state of Kentucky is absolutely crazy about the basketball. The game is as ingrained in the state's fabric as bluegrass, bourbon and horse racing.
It might also be easy to assume that the state's love affair with hoops is solely a byproduct of the historic success experienced by the University of Kentucky basketball program. Considering the fact that The Big Blue Nation will travel just about anywhere to see its team play and follows the school with a passion that borders on (and often crosses the line into) insanity, it's probably what a lot of folks outside of the Bluegrass State think.
But the Wildcats aren't the only game in town. The Louisville Cardinals (as much as I hate to admit it) have a storied tradition and incredibly passionate fanbase, as well. One needs to look no further than their state-of-the-art YUM! Center arena to see just how dedicated Kentucky's largest city is to its team and the game itself.
As you might expect, UK and Louisville's close proximity to each other has bred an intense instate rivalry...just as you would expect to happen in any state with two major universities that have successful programs. But the hatred between the Wildcats and the Cardinals runs much deeper than simply being close to each other.
Unlike many of college basketball's other great rivalries like Duke and UNC or Indiana and Purdue, UK and Louisville do not play in the same conference and only have one scheduled meeting each year. Their animosity is not simply born of familiarity or battling year after year for the conference crown; it starts and ends with basketball bragging rights in a state that is more religiously devoted to basketball than anything else.
Add in some incredible games and bizarre circumstances (like one legendary coach leading both teams), and you easily have the college game's best rivalry.
Let's take a look at some of the greatest (and weirdest) moments that make any matchup between these two programs a must-watch game for the entire country.
All stats via ESPN.com
1983: 'The Dream Game'
Photo @ AP news
Kentucky and Louisville met for the first time in 1913. For the next 70 years, they rarely played each other, but an improbable tournament matchup in the 1983 Elite Eight between the No. 2 Cardinals and No. 12 Wildcats sent the Bluegrass State into a frenzy.
Fans from both schools referred to the postseason clash between the two storied programs as 'The Dream Game' (per rushthecourt.net)...and for most of the matchup, it lived up to that billing. But once the game went into overtime, it was all Louisville as the Cardinals went on to win 80-68.
For the Cardinals, it was validation that they belonged in the same class as the mighty Kentucky Wildcats (even though they were ranked higher coming into the game).
For the Wildcats, however, it felt like the end of the world. They wanted nothing more than to avenge the loss. It took a lot of debate...and even a threatened legislative battle with the UK athletics department (per Joshua Lars Weill, HuffingtonPost.com)...but it was finally agreed upon that the two teams would meet once each year.
Kentucky got its revenge and then some fairly quickly. On November 11, 1983, No. 1 Kentucky clobbered the No. 6 Cardinals, 65-44. The two teams met again in the 1984 NCAA tournament, this time in the Sweet 16. Unlike their last postseason contest, the Wildcats edged out the Cardinals 72-67 on their way to the Final Four.
1987: "Swoops" Tips It in for the Win
By 1987, Kentucky had reestablished its dominance over Louisville by easily beating them twice in a row. It looked to be more of the same on December 12, 1987 as the unranked Cardinals had to face the No. 1 ranked Wildcats in Rupp Arena.
Louisville gave UK all it could handle, however, holding 75-74 lead with only 11 seconds left in the game. But that's when senior Cedric 'Swoops' Jenkins, who had not even scored in the game yet, tipped in a missed put back with one second left to lift UK to victory...while also giving the Louisville Cardinals one of the most crushing defeats imaginable.
1995: Cardinals Shock the Cats in Freedom Hall, UK Gets Revenge in Under a Year
Alvin Sims (photo @ fanbase.com)
In 1995, the University of Kentucky had been led out of probation by Rick Pitino into the promised land. They would go on that year to win the NCAA national championship...
...but they would not win the state of Kentucky. On January 1, 1995, the No. 5 Wildcats were stunned in Freedom Hall by the unranked Louisville Cardinals, 88-86.
The Wildcats, however, would get a chance to answer on December 23 of the same calendar year. This time the No. 4 Wildcats hosted the No. 25 Cardinals in Rupp Arena, where they crushed their instate rival, 89-66.
1997-1998: The Cardinals Own Tubby Smith and the Wildcats
photo @ kentuckysportsradio.com
Tubby Smith took over the Rick Pitino in the 1997-1998 season. Things started off very well for Smith's tenure, which included a national championship in his first season...with one exception.
In his first two years as UK's head coach, Tubby led a Wildcats team ranked in the top five into its annual game with an unranked Louisville squad and lost (79-76 in 1997 and 83-74 in 1998).
Smith finally righted the ship, however, by demolishing the Cardinals on December 18, 1999 by a score of 76-46.
2001: Rick Pitino Returns to Rupp Arena as a Cardinal
Photo @ AP News
After a failed stint in the NBA, former Wildcat coaching legend Rick Pitino did the unthinkable: He came back to college basketball, but with his former team's arch-rival.
On December 29, 2001, Pitino made his return to Rupp Arena in Lexington...it was unpleasant for him and the Cardinals to say the least. In addition to the deafening boos and disparaging signs, his over-matched Louisville team was throttled by Tubby Smith's No. 8 Wildcats, 82-62.
Revenge for the Cardinals, however, would come very soon...
2002: Pitino Has His Revenge
Photo @ Wildcatnation.net
After getting run out of Rupp Arena in 2001, it was Louisville's turn to host the No. 14 Wildcats on December 28, 2002. Led by UK transfer Marvin Stone, the Cardinals overcame an early lead by UK and eventually pounded them into the ground by a score of 81-63.
Not only did this game signify that Louisville would be a legitimate threat to the title of 'Best Basketball Team in the State,' but the crowd at Freedom Hall showed that Cardinal fans could be just as boisterous and loud as their rivals from Lexington.
2004: Patrick Sparks Ices It from the Line
Photo @ SECFanatics.com
After losing to Louisville again in 2003, the Wildcats headed back to Freedom Hall to exorcise the demons of their 2001 shellacking. With both teams ranked in the Top 25 (Kentucky No. 9, Louisville, No. 14), the game was a tale of two halves.
The Cardinals owned the first, going into halftime with a 32-16 lead. But Kentucky came out in the second half on fire, led by a hot-shooting Patrick Sparks.
With Kentucky down 58-57 and 11 seconds to go, Sparks took a shot from the corner and was fouled as the final buzzer sounded. He then went to the line and sank all three free throws, sealing a redemptive 60-58 win for the Wildcats.
2010: Animosity Between Calipari and Pitino Spills out onto the Court
Photo @ myCN2.com
John Calipari and Rick Pitino may be cordial (and even sometimes friendly) to each other in public, but it's not a very well kept secret that two do not like each other at all (via Gary Parish, CBSSports.com).
So when the two teams met during the first year of the Coach Cal era at UK, the tension in Rupp Arena was palpable. Constant jawing between both squads occurred in the tunnel before the game and during warm-ups. Once the game itself was finally played, five technical fouls were called and a brawl felt like it might break out at any moment.
The No. 3 Wildcats, however, kept their cool and hung on for a 71-62 win.
2012: The Teams Meet on College Basketball's Biggest Stage
Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports
Louisville and Kentucky had met in the the NCAA tournament before, but when the two teams ended up playing each other in the 2012 Final Four, the state of Kentucky itself nearly rocketed into space.
While a national championship was (obviously) the ultimate goal of both teams, there were many that honestly seemed to feel this game was even bigger. Not only was a spot in the championship game at stake, but eternal bragging rights for the deepest tournament matchup ever between the two schools.
Louisville was surprisingly able to dominate Kentucky on the boards, but it wasn't enough as UK won the game by a score of 69-61 and went on to win the 2012 national championship.