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Kentucky Wildcats-Louisville Cardinals: Why Rivalries Change The Game

Everyone knows by now that the Kentucky Wildcats and Louisville Cardinals are bitter rivals, and for the one game Kentucky plays per year with Louisville, there is a remarkable amount of angst and intensity here in the Bluegrass. This year, with a trip to the national final on the line, the stakes have never even approached this level.

Coupled with the John Calipari-Rick Pitino "feud," (which, in all honesty, is little more than occasional public jibes at one another), the rivalry has been pushed to up even higher. But even at that level, this is still a basketball game, not World War III. The stakes are high, but nobody (contra Rick Pitino and some other Louisville smack-talk) will be jumping off Kentucky's bridges if the Wildcats stumble against the Cardinals.

This rivalry is intense, important, and even bitter, but despite the hyperbole that basketball is a religion in the Bluegrass state, it isn't. It is a tradition, a deep love, and a great pastime. So let's just dial it back a hair -- trust me when I tell you that this rivalry, as Mike Rutherford pointed out the other day, is still the greatest in college basketball. It won't become the relatively sterile, genteel affair with much more hype than substance that Duke-UNC has become, and it won't morph into the tree-poisoning death struggle of Alabama-Auburn. It sits comfortably between those extremes and is far the better for it.

But rivals we are, and not friendly ones, either. The media meme this week has been that Kentucky's expectations make this game far more pressure-packed for them than Louisville, and there is no real doubt that is true. To what degree, however, has been rather over-played, but you can't honestly blame the media for that. It's their job to gin up the hype as much as possible, including the suggestion that Coach Cal will be lynched in public if his team somehow finds a way to lose. Yes, there will be repercussions, but they will be short-lived (relatively speaking) if intense. The sun will rise just as surely if Kentucky wins or loses, and life will go on in the Commonwealth.

Now that I've dealt with the reality, let's deal with some fan reality -- it will be surpassingly unpleasant to be a Kentucky fan anywhere near Louisville if an upset happens. As a person who sits squarely in a major suburb of the Commonwealth's biggest city, nobody is more qualified ton comment on this subject than yours truly. Unfortunately, Kentucky fans don't get near the benefit out of a win that Louisville fans will, mainly because UK is the prohibitive favorite in this game. That sucks, but it is what it is.

Why does all this rivalry stuff matter? Because probabilities go out the window with rivalry games. Too many times, the underdog is more motivated than the favorite, and in a rivalry, that really kicks the danger up a notch for the favorite. Louisville is trying to place themselves in a position to be more motivated, but as we will see, it may be about to backfire.

Moving on to the war of words, Luke Winn at Sports Illustrated has this today:

The comments more likely to linger are that of Pitino, talking about the enemy’s fans: "There will be people at Kentucky that will have a nervous breakdown if they lose to us. You’ve got to watch. They’ve got to put the fences up on bridges. There will be people consumed by Louisville." Or the words from Cardinals guard Chris Smith, who said on Saturday, without naming Kentucky but clearly referring to Kentucky, that "we owe some people some pain." He also told that he believed Louisville center Gorgui Dieng was as good as national player of the year Anthony Davis, and that Cardinals freshman Chane Behanan, who won the West Region’s Most Outstanding Player award, was the third-best power forward in the nation. Which means that Smith was modest enough to leave room for Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger and Kansas’ Thomas Robinson at the top of that power forward list, but not Kentucky’s Terrence Jones. Them’s fightin’ words, and it’s only Monday. Final Four week and hate week have merged into one, and it should be glorious.[my emphasis]

Kentucky is having no part of this smack-fest, at least not so far. All year long, in fact, the Wildcats have avoided anything remotely resembling smack-talk about the Cardinals or any other foe. The UK kids have been scrupulously respectful of their opponents in every single game without exception while not minimizing their confidence and determination to play their best.

It's rare to see this kind of talk go by unchallenged, but this year, I think you will. These Kentucky kids, with the exception of Marquis Teague, have displayed maturity far in excess of their tender years. I single out Teague because he has, at times, done some very freshman things, but that has not included locker-room material, which is to his great credit.

To be fair, Calipari is driving this train and is the big reason for the lack of motivational material for the Wildcats' foes. Coach Cal occasionally lets the desire to zing the foe, particularly Rick Pitino, get the better of him, but my opinion is that each and every one of those is carefully calibrated and calculated to elicit the response he wants. In other words, he is most likely manipulating Pitino when he does it, and Pitino dutifully allows himself to respond, which may be just as calculated. Pitino is a master of brinksmanship and motivation, as we all well remember from his days at Kentucky, and assuming he is no longer in charge of those abilities is absurd.

These two guys are two of the finest coaches ever in college basketball, and are likely both destined for the Hall of Fame. At this moment, they stand in each other's way to yet another milestone on that HOF path, and that's just as it should be. College basketball was made for moments like this, and personalities like these two coaches bring to the table. There is simply no place in the country where the drama, and interest, could be higher for a national semifinal.

Here's Rick Pitino from a Matt Norlander piece at CBS:

"There's so much petty jealousies, when I was at Kentucky we would never get jealous of Louisville in any way possible. We were just appreciative of being in Kentucky. The measuring stick, because they're doing so well, our fans never appreciated a really good season that was decimated by injuries. ... If that happens, it would be awesome. But we would say, the way I look at Kentucky and the way I look at their coaching staff, I marvel at excellence. I respect excellence. So I've got great respect for excellence. But I don't get into these petty things, Kentucky-Louisville. To me it's nonsense."

"Petty jealousies," Rick? Seriously, the way jealousy works is that the people without something are jealous of those with something. What exactly is it that Louisville has that anyone at Kentucky could be jealous of? I'm just asking, here. We have a better team, better facilities, bigger school, more fans, better fans, more NCAA titles, more Final Fours, more program wins, more money, and we didn't ask scholarship players to walk on so we can over-recruit. And we're jealous of Louisville who has less/worse of all that?

Sorry, Rick. I don't think "jealousy" means what you think it means. Is Pitino trying to get a rise out of Cal? Maybe. Will he? Stay tuned.

More from Luke Winn's piece:

Is it wrong that I’m more excited to see Louisville’s maddening star, Russ Smith, try to create points against Kentucky’s defense than I am to see Sully/T-Rob? Anyone who was in Phoenix this weekend developed an affinity for Russ, whom Pitino has nicknamed "Russ-diculous" for the sheer volume and range of plays positive and negative Smith makes when he’s inserted off the bench. If you haven’t been watching Smith, he’s like a scrawnier version of Kansas’ Tyshawn Taylor, with even more energy and less restraint on his shot. (And if you haven’t been watching Taylor, be aware that he has no restraint.)

"Restraint" isn't exactly a watchword of this Louisville team, as we have seen by their comments in the media. But keep in mind that it was exactly this kind of lack of restraint that created the massive run by Kentucky to put Baylor in a 20-point hole at halftime in the last game.

Playing the game fearlessly has consequences, some positive and some negative. Louisville, who by now must surely understand the extreme danger of turnovers against the Wildcats, is facing a bit of a quandary in this game -- to Russ or not to Russ. Louisville has a 22% turnover rate, by far the highest of any team we have faced in a long time, and Russ Smith is a big reason why it is so high. So while Smith may provide all sorts of benefits, keep in mind that he also provides all sorts of turnovers, and turning the ball over live to Kentucky, as Baylor will attest, is like walking up to an alligator and kicking it in the snout. You might get away with it, but the odds are that foot, and maybe the rest of you, will be in the alligator.

We'll have more coverage of the Dreamageddon coming soon. Go, 'Cats!