Forget the brainwashing/ mind numbing Duke/ Carolina propaganda that ESPN will be cramming down your throats when conference play ramps up after the New Year. There is only one state in America where fans eat, sleep, breathe, bleed, live, and die college basketball for 365 days out of the year. I'll give you a hint, as if you needed one, it's not North Carolina where ESPN would have you believe the sun rises and falls between Raleigh and Chapel Hill.
In a recent ESPN poll, voters were asked how much college basketball they planned on watching during the 24hr tip-off Marathon being put on by the 4letter network. Only one state answered "as much as possible." That's right ESPN, here in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, 48% of the voters said as much as possible, 43% said "a little- a lot" and, only 10% said none at all. Compare that to Tobacco Road where 23% said "as much as possible" and, 25% said "none at all." Let me say that again,.. 25% of the voters, in the place were ESPN would have you believe "College Basketball Lives", said that they wouldn't be watching any of the games during the Tip-Off-hoop-a-palooza. Hey Tobacco Road,..... put that in yer pipe and smoke it.
Why is it the best rivalry in College Basketball?
The always sickening love affair with the Duke/ Carolina rivalry is the fuel that ESPN burns on from the end of the NFL season until the NBA playoffs begin. I mean let's face it, there aren't very many people who care enough about the NBA to engulf themselves into the 82 game regular season; and, that will be especially true this year with the lockout seemingly headed towards Overpaid Crybaby Armageddon. ESPN will once again shamelessly promote the two games that they get to broadcast as the greatest thing to happen to College Basketball since the three point line, while conveniently downplaying the game that they don't get to make money off of.
They just don't get it. They don't understand how important College Basketball, and the battle of I-64 is to us lucky few who were born into it. It just means more to us; for reasons too many to enumerate but, I'll take a shot at it. With Duke/ UNC the fans get two, sometimes three chances, to be the masters of their co-workers, friends, and family's misery. They play twice a year, and if they handle their business like they should, they sometimes get to see a best two out of three series between their most hated rival. Here in the Commonwealth, we get one shot. That's it, that's all you get.
Here you get one opportunity to claim bragging rights for the next 364 days; and, if your team doesn't get it done(?) well.... you're basically at the mercy of a group of individuals who will make it their mission to let you know it for the next 364 days. Turn on a local sports talk radio station, in this state, in June and tell me how many people you hear talking about MLB, the NFL, or even College Football for that matter. Go to any story on ESPN about Louisville or Kentucky, on any day of the year, and check out the comment section. You will inevitably hear/ see people from both sides rubbing it in or explaining how great their teams will be in the coming season.
An Objective History of Hate:
The rivalry has been taken to an all time high in terms of vitriol in the last several years, but it's a hate that's been building since Adolph Rupp was at Kentucky. Rupp took the position early on that he wasn't even going to acknowledge the University of Louisville's program, thereby not giving any credence to the fact that they were building towards something worthy of his attention. Kentucky's history and tradition is unquestioned, and their rule over the Commonwealth was absolute; but, in 1971 Denny Crum arrived at UofL and in 1972 the Barron retired from UK.
By 1980, Joe B. Hall taken UK to a Final Four in 1975, and also brought home Championship number five in 1978. Meanwhile, down the road at UofL, Cool Hand Luke had taken Louisville Final Fours in 1972 & 1975, barely missing an opportunity to play Kentucky for the Championship in 1975 when he lost to his former coach, and mentor John Wooden, by the slimmest of margins (74-75). Then, in 1980 Louisville captured her first National Championship and embarked on a run that, in many people's minds, made them the "Team of the 80s." Four trips to the Final Four and two National Championships gave Louisville fans plenty to feel good about, and talk about to Wildcat fans. This is where the hate really began.
Until 1980 fans of the University of Kentucky could brush off any chirping, from their Cardinal counterparts, without a second thought. Until 1980 UK fans could say Louisville wasn't a Champion; until 1986 they could say Louisville was a one hit wonder. Joe B. Hall was replaced at the University of Kentucky by Eddie Sutton. He left without bringing home number six, only taking his team to one more Final Four in the midst of Louisville's rise to prominence. Sutton's regime lasted just four short years ending badly with a scandal that prompted the famous Sports Illustrated cover, "Kentucky's Shame." Not being one myself, I can only imagine that this was the low point for Kentucky fans who were old enough to remember the Adolph Rupp era. Not being old enough to remember, I can only imagine that that this was a time when Louisville fans were probably as enfureating as humanly possible for anyone who bled blue.
Then, almost as if it was their time to return to glory, the hiring of a young coach from Providence breathed life into a program that had seemingly fallen from grace. With a full court pressing/ three point shooting style that overwhelmed opponents, Kentucky just missed the Final Four in 1992; they were back. Kentucky sprinted to the final weekend in 1993, 1996, and 1997; just missing back to back National Championships when they lost an overtime thriller to Arizona. Soon after, Pitino departed for more money than most of us will ever see, and Tubby Smith brought number seven back to Lexington the very next season. Down the road in Louisville, Denny Crum had failed to return to the Final Four sine his second National Title in 1986; and, Louisville fans could only watch in horror as Kentucky dominated the decade of the 90s.
So, there you have it right? That's why this is the greatest rivalry in College Basketball, right? UK is one of the most storied programs ever, then upstart Louisville is built into a powerhouse ruling the the 80s while UK suffers through mediocrity (by their standards) and a horrible scandal. Louisville fans then let them have it unmercifully for years. Then, the tables are turned and Kentucky rules the 90s while Louisville falls below the standards they'd set for themselves; giving UK fans the opportunity to lay it on extra thick for years to come.
If that were all this rivalry was about, then it wouldn't have been worth my time to type these words, or your time to read them now would it?
It's much more than that. It's Rick Pitino leaving the NBA to take the job at Louisville. It's both programs getting thiiiiiiis close to their next Championship from 1998 until now. It's the to-and-fro, its the series being 5-4 over the last nine years with both teams making the Final Four; and, both teams sputtering to the NIT. It's all the trash talking, hate filled, spiteful wonderfulness that came along with both programs being so close to the Mountain top, but also at the very bottom looking up, over the last nine years. It's the zingers that came when Kentucky hired a DUI machine, or when the details of a sex scandal were everywhere you looked.
It's vacated final fours and coaches who don't like each other. Rex Champman on fire, and Samki Walker's triple double. It's Sosa for the win, and a near brawl in Rupp two years ago. It's Jorts' coming out party, Calipari turning up the heat, and RIck saying he's not going to take it anymore. It's Louisville First vs. Players First. It's Louisville and Kentucky, it's where it's not just a game,..... it's your life for the next 364 days. Both teams enter this season ranked in the top ten with greater expectations, both locally and nationally, than I can ever remember in my 31 years on this planet. On December 31st, it's going to come to a head again. More than that, if both teams can stay healthy and live up to the hype, there's a very real possibility that the Commonwealth could own Bourbon Street this April,...... from both sides of I-64.
It just feels right doesn't it? Almost like you couldn't write a better moment for these two programs. I'm certainly going to enjoy the ride this year; but, I'm also going to enjoy it with the thought of the biggest rivalry in college basketball being played out on college basketball's biggest stage rolling around in my mind. As for the debate over where college basketball really lives? Well,... if you're not from the Commonwealth of Kentucky, then you just don't get it and you probably never will.