So here we are, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation — about to gird our loins for the Rivalry Game, a.k.a. the Dream Game and the Battle of the Bluegrass. The Kentucky Wildcats vs. Louisville Cardinals is anticipated every single year by basketball junkies around America, and there are no bigger basketball junkies anywhere than in the Bluegrass State itself. Whether your loyalties lie with the Red and Black or the Blue and White, this is the game that stirs the imagination and fans the partisan flames to the intensity of a blast furnace.
This year, the rivalry is even more intense for two significant reasons. For one, Louisville is getting a bit on the lopsided end of the won-loss column. All rivalries are fueled by both success and failure, and even though their latest success is fairly recent, the Cardinals are on the short end of the record over the last five seasons. The series has featured not one but two late-season NCAA Tournament meetings in recent years, both of which have seen the Cardinals dismissed by Kentucky — from last season’s Sweet Sixteen, and from the 2012 Final Four.
Second, both teams are undefeated, the first time this has ever happened in the Dream Game. Louisville has no real shot to get through the season undefeated with the likes of Duke, North Carolina (twice) and Virginia (twice) still in front of them. Kentucky has a better shot, particularly if they get by this game, but the odds are still against them.
This is the biggest regular-season game for Kentucky in most years. Sometimes, late games against conference rivals can be bigger. Last season, the game against Louisville in the NCAA Tournament was bigger, as was the game against Wichita State and even Wisconsin because of the stakes.
Here are some more reasons why this game matters so much.
Because of the 1983 Mideast Regional Final. That was the first dream game, and Louisville dismissed the Wildcats from the NCAA Tournament. I still have nightmares about that game 31 years later. That was the game that precipitated the annual meeting between these same-state titans.
Because of Monday morning. Nobody, particularly Kentucky fans in the River City, want to go in to work and face a victorious Louisville fan base. It makes an already tough day completely miserable.
Because of social media. No matter who wins, social media will light up with taunts, salting the wounds for the loser.
Because of NCAA Tournament seeding. Wins against top five teams make a high seed easier to achieve, and notwithstanding the rarity of last year, top seeds are very important to NCAA Tournament success.
Because of Rick Pitino. He’s the former UK coach, won a championship with the Wildcats, and then committed high treason by taking the Louisville job. He should’ve joined a monastery after his NBA misadventure rather than taking a job against UK’s biggest rival.
Because there is usually no opportunity to avenge the result. 2012 and 2014 notwithstanding, second meetings for Kentucky and Louisville are rare. In fact, since the original dream game, they have only happened 3 times in 31 years. Most years, the loser has to carry this defeat around for 360 days or more.
Because we all have "that guy" in our family, be it a Cardinal fan in our cat’s cradle, or a Wildcat fan in the bird’s nest.
Because everyone wants to ring in the new year with a win over a rival. It’s a great way to start out a new year if you win, and a downer if you don’t.
This should be a great game for the fans. The coaches don’t love it so much, because the hype and intensity is a distraction for their teams, as is the aftermath. But without the fans, college basketball would be an intramural sport at best. This is the kind of game that makes college basketball great, keeps the fans coming back for more, and produce memories that last for years, even decades. From the memorable Dunk by Russ Smith on Julius Randle last season…
…to the Aaron Harrison show, first against Louisville, then Michigan, then Wisconsin. But Cardinal fans will want to remember the first one.
There’s always the Patrick Sparks game to make Kentucky fans feel good (Note: if you’re averse to Dick Vitale hype, you might want to turn the sound down).
There was the Cedrick Jenkins tip-in…
… and finally, the Rex Chapman game. God, I loved that one:
Memories, good and bad, but mostly good. Go, ‘Cats!