Media personalities from Dick Vitale to Mike DeCourcy revere the Duke Blue Devils - North Carolina Tar Heels basketball rivalry. It is considered the sine qua non of college basketball rivalries, the be-all and end all. And, of course, it isn't.
Mike Rutherford of the Card Chronicle wrote an excellent piece almost exactly one year ago on why (from a Louisville perspective) the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry is the best in college basketball. He went out of his way to avoid hyperbole, and in something of a reversal of roles, I'm going to go out of my way to indulge in a bit of it. This game deserves some.
The rivalry between the Kentucky Wildcats and Louisville Cardinals is unquestionably, in my mind at least, the most intense rivalry in the sport. Around here, or over at Card Chronicle, this statement would, for the most part, be undisputed. Nobody understands the intensity, the white-hot nature of this ongoing conflict, quite like the fans of the two schools involved.
Carolina-Duke is a comparatively passionless thing, primarily due to the fact that they play a series of games during each year, sometimes as many as three and potentially up to four if the two teams met in the NCAA Tournament (Note: It has never happened). One fan base is able, at some point near the end of the year, to claim a victory in the series. Often, there is no such victory to be had, as the series splits and the two do not meet in the ACC or NCAA tournaments.
Imagine, if you will, a Kentucky-Louisville split. It has never happened. There was one opportunity in a season, 1983-84, but UK won both.
The Kentucky-Louisville game is victory, or defeat. Win, or lose. Bragging rights, or suffering. Yes, another NCAA meeting is possible and probably inevitable at some point, and we may yet experience a season where it's no joy for either team. But the possibility remains remote, and generally, wished-for only by the loser.
The intensity of the Louisville-Kentucky rivalry is not the spitting, profanity and abuse-laced affair that greeted Wildcats fans in Bloomington earlier this year for the Indiana Hoosiers game. It is more of a cold, visceral loathing than a hot hatred. There have been a few altercations provoked by both sides, generally minor scuffles among youth or property damage among more infantile adults ("keying" of rival fan's cars and/or destruction of enemy flags or other emblazonments), and some name-calling and profane verbal abuse, but such incidents are rare. Both fan bases generally consider it beneath their dignity to act out like that against the other.
But lest you get the idea that this rivalry is dispassionate, it is anything but. The two groups of fans can barely tolerate each other, and will go out of their way not to interact in any way soon before or soon after the game is over, until passions on both sides have cooled below the temperature of molten magma. The Kentucky-Louisville rivalry is not the volcanic hatred of Alabama-Auburn, where ancient oaks are murdered as a proxy for actual violence among the fans. It is rather like the icy-cold, barely controlled fury of Khan Noonien Singh in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan.
These are two groups of fans that consider their respective programs morally and historically superior to the other, regardless of objective reality. All each fan base wants out of this contest is as resounding a victory as possible, and if blood must be let on the court, so be it. Figuratively, of course.
This battle begins and ends in the trenches every year before and after the game. Before, it is a slow build-up to a rolling boil as the game draws closer and closer. Both team's fans will make raids into the enemy's on-line territory looking for fodder with which to browbeat the other. Occasional Internet skirmishes will break out here and there, and workplaces that have fans of both teams will see taunting emails fly, and stink-eyes glare, as well as the occasional debate that escalates to shouting matches with fans on each side assuring total scorched-earth destruction to the other.
After comes the excuse-making, the complaints about officiating, the third-party proofs of actual superiority and the retribution against the coach and team who failed to deliver their fix of a year of schadenfreude at the expense of opposing fans, as well as bitter vows of revenge at the earliest available opportunity. The Kentucky-Louisville rivalry is a messy business, but it is something most fans of either team look forward to every year.
Since former Kentucky coach Rick Pitino came to Louisville, enraging Wildcats fans, the temperature of the rivalry increased noticeably. When John Calipari, Pitino rival and past coach of formerly-bitter Conference USA foe Memphis came to Kentucky and renovated the UK program, Louisville fans exploded in icy venom. They knew, and despised, Calipari from his Memphis days. The rivalry has now reached a level of unprecedented intensity which figures to linger for at least five more years, and perhaps beyond. Add to that the high ranking and excellent records of both teams this year, and the stakes have been elevated to previously unimagined levels.
As the game gets very close, neutral observers will see unusual acts among strangers in public places, like groups of one fan base mocking a complete stranger in rival colors. Flags will begin to adorn houses in either Red and Black or Blue and White, with the occasional "House Divided" flag containing both sets of colors. Brothers and sisters on opposite sides will stop speaking to each other just before and for a while after the game until the wounds of defeat and obnoxious elation of victory fade back to tolerable levels.
Kentucky-Louisville is a rivalry the way it should be, and the way it rarely is. At it's peak, it is far more intense than any other basketball rivalry, and that is simply the objective truth. Fans on both sides allow themselves to be carried away to the brink of madness, but rarely beyond. The game itself is an orgy of passion and team partisanship, and in the aftermath, one group sulks off to lick their wounds, grudgingly acknowledging the victor's superior play, while the victor celebrates, as often as possible within full view or earshot of the loser. Needless to say, being the loser is P-A-I-N-F-U-L, especially when you live behind enemy lines.
Unlike Carolina-Duke, you have 365 days, more or less, to suffer at the hands of your rivals. There is almost no chance of respite, and no escape from your tormentor. Like a football rivalry, the shame and pain must be borne, in full measure, until the lust of the enemy for your embarrassment is sated, or until other events have intervened to ameliorate the suffering, or until next year.
If this all sounds extreme, it is, and insanely exciting. And that's why this rivalry is the best. There are no half-measures here, no splits, no draws -- only victory, and defeat.