Kentucky vs. Louisville: Basketball Armageddon

WASHINGTON –- All of you non-Kentuckians out there have no idea what brand of deep-fried hell is about to break loose in the Bluegrass state this week and in the New Orleans Superdome Saturday.

Why? Because the University of Louisville Cardinals are playing the University of Kentucky Wildcats for the first time ever in a Final Four match-up of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Having lived in Kentucky, and having learned to love college basketball there, I can tell you that this game, in the minds of Kentuckians, is equivalent in magnitude to: Greeks v. Persians, Grant v. Lee, Voldemort v. Harry, Jesus v. Moses, Reagan v. Evil Empire.

It’s Armageddon, catered by KFC.

To understand why, you need to know the state, the history, schools and the personalities.

Before I go further, let me explain my own history and biases. This is a necessary declaration for anyone who would write about this fraught topic.

OK, so I was not born in Kentucky. I lived in Louisville, working for The Courier-Journal newspaper. I rooted for UK in some Final Fours. But I was also attending the University of Louisville Law School at night, and they became my team. Since I am not a Kentucky native, I am not required to love one team and hate the other. And I don’t. I’m a U of L fan but admire Kentucky. Sort of.

If that sounded like a religious declaration -- or like Rick Santorum at a campaign stop -- it was: college basketball in Kentucky is right behind the Southern Baptist Church in fervency.

I would submit that college ball there is more important to and has a stronger tradition than in any other state, including North Carolina’s Tobacco Road or the flatlands of Ohio, Indiana or Kansas.

This year, for example, North Carolina sent five teams and Ohio sent four teams to the tournament. But four teams are also from Kentucky, which has less than half the population of Carolina and about a third the population of Ohio.

Also, and unlike those two states, in Kentucky there is no professional basketball team -- indeed no major league sports franchise of any kind. Nor is the football tradition strong. College basketball is king by default.

For a long time, UK occupied that throne with little or no dispute. Even today, UK basketball is one of the few cultural institutions that bind the complex cultural and geographical patchwork of the Commonwealth together. Members of the UK roster -- their portraits etched in wall calendars and brochures -- are familiar figures to kids from Pikeville to Paducah, and the UK coach occupies a place of honor, intrigue and controversy that often overshadows the role -- if not the legal power -- of the governor.

But things began to change a generation ago, in the early 1970s, when a former John Wooden protégé and player named Denny Crum took over a respectable but by no means fabled Louisville program.

Crum changed everything.

Since 1971, the two schools have exhibited something close to parity -- not in the minds of most Kentuckians outside of Louisville, but in the minds of fair-minded basketball fans and in the stat sheets.

Academically, the two schools aren’t going to make the NCAA Final Four anytime soon. Both are, shall we say, improving. UK is ranked 124th by U.S. News in its survey of national universities. U of L is 164th. The UK law school is ranked 62nd best; the U of L Brandeis School of Law, my alma mater, clocks in at 89th.

But no one questions our basketball IQ.

From 1971 until now, Louisville has won two National Championships and been in eight Final Fours, and Kentucky has won three National Championships and been in nine Final Fours.

UK fans hate these numbers, and hate the U of L with a schizophrenic mix of dismissive casualness and furious loathing. U of L fans, by far a minority in the state outside of Louisville (and even in Louisville UK allegiance is strong), are generally glad just to be on the same stage and now on a par nationally.

Louisville and Kentucky played each other in the NCAA's in 1959 -- a game U of L won. UK had shied away from playing Louisville before that game and after 1959 refused to schedule them for 24 years.

They only met because they were forced to, in the NCAA regional in Knoxville in 1983.

The so-called “Dream Game” became a nightmare for UK when Louisville won in overtime. The governor of the state at the time, John Y. Brown, attended the event wearing a two-sided cap (one side with Kentucky blue, the other with Cardinal red) and a hideous ultra-suede sports coat with school colors split down the middle. (For a video see here.)

By the mid '80s the schools had agreed to play each other each year early in the season. This annual pageant of détente is about as heartfelt as a peace agreement between Israelis and Arabs.

There is also now a certain amount of facilities parity. Louisville plays in a new downtown arena that is not quite as big as Rupp Arena in the college town of Lexington. But the unfortunately named Yum! Center is a spiffy, state-of-the-art, Ohio Riverfront facility that is packed to the rafters for every game. (In 2011, UK and U of L ranked first and third in average attendance, respectively.)

(Just to complicate things -- and assert its continued statewide dominion -- the University of Kentucky now is playing several games a year in Louisville’s OLD arena for 51 years, Freedom Hall.)

It's not just about history and regional rivalries.

The careers of Louisville coach Rick Pitino and UK coach John Calipari add fire to the family feud. The two were once friends; one played for and the other coached at the University of Massachusetts, and both coached in the NBA. They are both known as intense courtside tacticians, meticulous students of the game and master recruiters.

But it is more personal than that. Pitino won a National Championship as the UK coach in 1996, before decamping to the NBA. When Denny Crum decided to retire in 2001 after 30 years as coach, Pitino came back to the Bluegrass -- as Louisville’s coach.

Pitino made the Final Four in 2005, becoming the NCAA coach to take three different schools there (Providence being the third).

The thought of Pitino possibly leading U of L to victory over UK delights Louisvillians, and infuriates Kentucky fans, who admire Calipari, who, if anything, has more charm and success as a recruiter. There are SEVEN McDonald’s All-Americans on the UK team.

“Coach Cal” has only one problem, one UK fans don’t like to discuss. At his previous stops -- the University of Massachusetts and the University of Memphis -- his programs got in trouble. At both schools, NCAA tournament victories were taken away as a result.

Even if that ultimately happens at UK -- and there are plenty of Louisville fans (not including me) that think or hope it will -- there is still a game to be played in New Orleans on Saturday.

More on that tomorrow.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post misstated that Denny Crum retired as head coach of Louisville in 1991; he retired in 2001. It also misstated the attendance rankings for NCAA men's basketball programs and misstated Rick Pitino's relationship to the UMass basketball program. Rick Pitino also does not share the distinction of taking three different schools to the Final Four; he is currently the only coach to have done so. In this year's tournament, five -- not four -- teams are from North Carolina.