Let's get one thing out of the way right now -- the rivalry between the Kentucky Wildcats and Louisville Cardinals is, and always has been, a mostly one-sided affair in terms of wins and losses. At this moment in time, Kentucky leads Louisville in overall series wins by over 2-1, specifically 30-14 or 2.14-1. If Louisville wins the game on Saturday, that situation will not improve significantly.
The Kentucky-Louisville rivalry is much more one-sided than Alabama's sovereignty over the Iron Bowl, or North Carolina's 132-102 command of their storied rivalry with Duke, and it is that one-sidedness that feeds the passion from Louisville. Their anger, in turn, feeds the excruciating smugness of Wildcats fans -- the two attitudes, particularly when facilitated by social media and fan sites, create a feedback loop that cultivates an ever-intense cycle of mutual detestation.
Kentucky is to blame for the intensity of the rivalry, and Dana O'Neil of ESPN covers that very well in this piece, so I won't rehash that here. While Louisville has been an extremely successful team over the years, sporting a couple of NCAA Tournament championships and multiple Final Fours (two of them during Rick Pitino's tenure as head coach), the eight championships by Kentucky are a continuing source of irritation to Louisville aficionados, and UK fans miss no opportunities to rub it in.
The facts are these: Kentucky fans are, in general, insufferably elitist, and Louisville fans are insufferably jealous of the Wildcats' success. There have been a few periods during this rivalry when that situation has been reversed, but not many.
It is, in point of fact, very much similar to a "big brother-little brother" situation, a term tossed out by Eddie Sutton in December of 1986 when he referred to Louisville as "little brother." That comment inflamed the Cardinal fan base just before the game in which "King" Rex Chapman went off for 26 points and Kentucky dropped the Cardinals by a record-breaking 34 points in Freedom Hall. Fueling the Cardinal ire over that result was the fact that Chapman was heavily recruited by then-coach Denny Crum, and in spite of Louisville being Chapman's favorite team growing up, the Owensboro native picked Kentucky over the Cardinals.
That particular game cemented the rivalry as no other game ever had save the 1983 victory by Louisville in the NCAA regional finals. Louisville was coming off their second NCAA title in 1986, and Kentucky rose up and crushed them on their home floor with a team that, on paper, was vastly inferior -- ironically, the polar opposite of the situation the Wildcats find themselves in coming off a championship this year. It's a game that current Kentucky assistant, Kenny Payne, will undoubtedly remember forever. So will most Cardinal partisans, and it is one of many events that have Card fans gnashing their teeth whenever Kentucky is mentioned.
That doesn't mean, however, that Kentucky fans don't want this game badly. There's no real doubt that right now, Louisville fans (and likely Louisville players) want this game more -- The Cardinals are on the short end of a 4-0 winning streak by Kentucky, and unlike UK where only a couple of players have seen one or more games in this rivalry, many Cardinal team members have bitter memories of the game. There are no players from the last victorious Louisville team now on the Louisville roster -- Payton Siva and Stephan Van Treese were Cardinal signees when the 2009 Louisville team that was heavily favored narrowly escaped unranked Kentucky via a 27-foot Edgar Sosa three at the buzzer in Freedom Hall.
Since John Calipari took over the Wildcats, and for 3 straight years and 4 straight games, Louisville has wound up on the short end of the score. Louisville has given a good account of themselves in every contest against Calpari's one-and-done machine in Lexington, but so far, talent has won out over experience. Every time.
Many figure that this will be the year that Louisville finally gets a win against Calipari -- they have young talent, returning talent, lots of live bodies and a #4 AP ranking. Even though they will still be a talent underdog in tomorrow's game, they won't be the betting underdog. Most analysts have Louisville defending the Yum! Center from the Big Blue invasion for the first time in the short history of the venue, some by as many as double-digits.
But Louisville fans know better. They know that Kentucky's youth is starting to fade, and that when enough games have been played by the talented Wildcats, they will be a handful. Louisville fans know that Notre Dame and Baylor were a long time ago in terms of basketball progression, and that they are not going to be at full strength in this game even if Gorgui Dieng does start and plays a number of minutes. They know that the underdog wins in this rivalry from first-hand experience, because they have pulled four upsets themselves on ranked Kentucky as the unranked team.
In terms of numbers, Kentucky has never reeled off more than 4 straight victories in the modern era since the original Dream Game that marked the resurgence of the long-dormant series back during the 1983 Mideast Regional Final in Knoxville, TN. Calipari and Kentucky would make modern series history if they pull the upset tomorrow, and you can bet that Cardinals fans know it.
The aforementioned article by O'Neil took very good look at this game from the perspective of perception, particularly the perception of Rick Pitino, who has the unique distinction of being the only coach to be on both sides of it. Late in the piece, this comment provides context for us all:
"It's tough for a Northeast person to understand, I think," Pitino said. "We grew up with the Knicks, the Yankees, but we would never get that worked up over a game. Sports are a meaningful distraction to people there. Here, it's not a distraction. It's their life."
And then Pitino paused, realizing that his most clarifying moment was also the most puzzling.
"You know I've lived here 20 years," he said, "and I guess I still don't get it."
He's not the only one, you know. Calipari, from Moon Township in western Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh, is probably more a northeasterner by disposition than midwestern, although there is some dispute about whether Pittsburgh is considered part of the midwest or northeast.
It doesn't really matter -- like Pitino, he doesn't get it either, and probably never will. Such is the curse of hiring coaches who have no real roots in this region, and no genuine feel for the history of it. To them, the Kentucky-Louisville series is just a game that gets written about a lot, that they've heard about a lot, and despite coaching in it (in Pitino's case, from both sides), the passion and intensity of the fans is forever a mystery to them. They probably think privately that the Duke Blue Devils-North Carolina Tar Heels rivalry is just as intense, and possibly more important since they are conference as well as in-state rivals.
Kentucky and Louisville fans, deep down, know that the teams they root for are almost completely imported from outside of the state, including their coaches. Virtually none of the main participants in this contest these days hails from the Commonwealth of Kentucky itself. But that doesn't matter at all, because in metaphorical sports terms, the fans of both teams love to see the other's blood, even when it comes to volleyball, baseball or any other sport you can name. It's just that basketball is the most beloved sport in the Bluegrass State, and has a vastly larger following for both teams.
It isn't as if Louisville hasn't enjoyed success against Kentucky -- they have. Louisville has many more big upsets to their credit in the series than Kentucky does, and has come from behind at half to win 4 times against the Wildcats since 1997. However, the one-sided nature of this series is not lost on Louisville partisans, and their intensity for tomorrow's game is likely to be far higher than any game in recent memory.
The first game of the Calipari era in January of 2010 saw both teams hit with 5 technical fouls and 51 personal fouls. Tomorrow's game will be a war, and it will be fought in cauldron of angst over a long dry spell and pent-up dislike made manifest by mutual fan provocation. That will not be lost on the players, and if there was ever a case where there could be trouble in this series, this game is it.
We have seen an atmosphere similar to this become a problem last year when, provoked partially by crowd intensity, Cincinnati and Xavier exploded into violence. The Kentucky-Louisville game has no real history of that, although the 2010 game in Rupp Arena was an explosive situation that simply failed to go off thanks to strict officiating. In a similarly intense rivalry game against Indiana last year in Bloomington, IU fans were intolerably rude to Kentucky fans and even caused injury when they rushed the floor after they upset Kentucky with a last-second Christian Watford 3-pointer. Fortunately, to the credit of both the Kentucky and Louisville fan bases, the mutual dislike has been more cold than red-hot, even during the games.
Make no mistake, however -- this game tomorrow is going to be the most intense game these young Kentucky kids have ever seen, and probably the Cardinal players as well since they have much more skin in the game as far as the series is concerned. How the Kentucky freshmen react to that will go a long way to determine who wins and who loses.