Thursday, March 27, 2014

Battle of the Bluegrass: Why Louisville vs Kentucky is the Greatest Rivalry Today

Chaos is approaching. All systems are a go with sirens blaring and the sun setting. The ultimate showdown between good vs evil (who's good and who's evil all depends on who you ask) will be watched by millions of spectators on Friday night.

Sleep safe viewers, it is not Armageddon. However, in the state of Kentucky, it's the closest thing to it.

Kentucky and Louisville will battle for a spot in the Elite Eight on Friday night. The two teams have met once this season, with the Wildcats edging the Cardinals 73-66. Although some experts are predicting UK to sweep the series, UL could easily send John Calipari and his young squad packing home.

No extra hype needed for this rivalry game, yet the fact that Friday's game is a huge NCAA tournament match-up for a potential Final Four appearance doesn't hurt the notoriety. Forget your brackets, gambling odds and other outside interests. When it comes to this game, what really matters is the pride within the borders of the bluegrass state. After all, it is the greatest rivalry in modern day college basketball.

I learned the hard way. As a 12 year old moving to Kentucky, I had no idea what I was in for. Football was second to hoops, and half of the people couldn't grasp the concept of hockey. Basketball had no importance to me, that is until the annual Battle for the Bluegrass rolled around. That's all anybody talked about, and on game day, all attention was fixed on the television screen as Edgar Sosa blasted a three point shot in the final seconds to lift Louisville over Kentucky. The excitement from the kids at school, the disappointment on family member's faces, the meaning this rivalry carried was new to me, and I loved it.

See in Kentucky, you're either born a Cardinal or Wildcat. Outsiders coming in are properly baptized. Switching allegiances is nearly a sin in churches throughout a state. This rivalry has broken up partnerships, friendships and yes, even relationships. For 364 days a year, fans of both teams participate in ferocious trash talk, and on the day of the game, the intensity multiplies. Hate is a strong word to use in any context, but boy oh boy, do these two sides hate each other.

Maybe it's the fact that the two universities are within nearly 75 miles of each other? Or perhaps the constant power struggle between UL and UK to get not only top recruits to participate in sports programs, but the cream of the crop students for academics as well? All the above are true, yet one man was able to add an already big quantity of fuel to the fire in this rivalry.

Rick Pitino has built an impressive resume.The only head coach to lead three different schools to a Final Four appearance (Providence, Kentucky and Louisville), and the only coach in the NCAA to lead two different schools to a national championship(You guessed it, Kentucky and Louisville). Among the many impressive feats on his resume includes a brief stint with the New York Knicks, and a short tenure with the Boston Celtics. Pitinio, however, is notorious for one decision. The decision to cross over to the dark side, to switch blue for red. Forget about any Benedict Arnold, Rick Pitino was far worse in the minds of Wildcat fans.

To Cardinal faithful, he's a savior. Leading Louisville to its first Final Four appearance in 19 years in 2005, and winning it's first national championship in three decades in 2013. He resurrected the Cardinal program after legendary coach Denny Crum retired, and Louisville alumni and fans could never be so gracious. However, in Lexington, Pitino is synonymous with the words "traitor", and "villian" among many things. Once a highly respected man for leading UK back to the promise land in 1996, ditching big blue for the big stage of the NBA and then coaching the sworn enemy certainly is no way to go out.

 Forget about burning bridges, Rick Pitino might have burnt every bridge, road and trail on his way to Louisville.

Since then, John Calipari has stepped up majorly and made Wildcat fans forget about the woes of the 2000's. Coach Cal has led UK to it's first national championship since Tubby Smith left in 1998, and continues to produce NBA talent since his arrival. A major upgrade from the last coach (we're looking at you, Billie Gillispie) Calapari has made Kentucky into a shade of it's former self, a powerhouse in modern day basketball.

Combine the proximity of the two schools, the past endeavors of a certain Italian man, the overall success of both programs and the intense hatred towards the opposition and what do you get? Simply a day in the State of Kentucky. I'm sure a rivalry like Duke vs North Carolina is similar, yet I don't believe the fans trade intense Facebook posts and tweets every, single, day. Some say it's unnecessary, others say it's too much. I say, it's beautiful.

The last time these two met in the NCAA tournament was in the 2012 Final Four. After Kentucky upended Louisville to go on to the national championship game, the people of Lexington took to the streets. Couch burning, shotgun shooting and car spray painting were the main activities for the next few hours. Outsiders call it inhumane and crazy, but they'll never understand. For the whole state, it's an intense passion that is unparalleled to anything else. Babies are named after players, and homes become divided.

So on Friday, before tipoff at 9:45 ET, battle stations will be ready. Families will make the necessary viewing adjustments within the household, as sports bars across the state are thankful for a second day of this battle. A 40 minute fight between friends, co-workers and family members will be the only thing that matters for the next week, perhaps even the months coming. Whoever comes out victorious, Louisville or Kentucky, will advance to the Elite Eight and an entire fan base will claim it's rightful place on the throne of it's kingdom. After all, basketball does belong in the bluegrass state.

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