by Kent Sterling
March Madness doesn’t exist in Kentucky; it’s just Madness because it runs through all 12 months.
There are crosstown rivalries like the Cubs and White Sox, Jets vs. Giants, and college football’s Michigan vs. Ohio State, but there is nothing quite like college basketball’s Louisville vs. Kentucky locking horns in March.
When I moved to deep southern Indiana from Chicago as a kid, I was stunned at the level of passion for college basketball, and overjoyed by the acrimony between the fan bases of Louisville and Kentucky. Kentucky fans dismissed Louisville as rabble not worth their time, and Louisville fans saw that early incarnation of Big Blue Nation as elitist mopes arrogant without logical rationale.
The level of bitterness between the two fan bases is far different from any rivalry in America. Chicago baseball fans are resigned to the fact that the Cubs and White Sox have virtually no chance to ever face one another in the World Series. Since 1917, there has been exactly one World Championship won by a Chicago team, and both teams have seemingly been in a race to see who can be worse for years.
The madness over college basketball’s best rivalry isn’t reserved for March – or during the season. Walk into a bar in Louisville, New Albany, or Jefferesonville in June, and the conversations will be about recruiting classes two and three years down the road. College and high school hoops are a 12-month a year obsession along the Ohio River.
Kentucky and Louisville fans are used to contending for a National Championship, so when these two teams play, it’s not just for local bragging rights, but for the chance to go to the Final Four and win.
The Cardinals and Wildcats have played in the NCAA Tournament five times (1951, 1959, 1983, 1984, 2012) with Kentucky holding a 3-2 edge.
From 1922-1983, Louisville and Kentucky refused to play one another during the regular season. That was more Kentucky refusing to schedule what they felt was an inferior program against whom they had nothing to gain a little over an hour west on I-64 than Louisville deciding not to play UK.
Then, Kentucky and Louisville played each other in the 1983 Elite Eight in Knoxville, TN, for a trip to the Final Four. Louisville won in overtime, and that set the stage for a resumption of the regular season series which has continued uninterrupted since.
Familiarity has not prompted the two fan bases to come together as one to sing “Kumbayah” in a mosh pit of love and tolerance. If anything, the friction between Big Blue Nation and Cardinal Nation has increased because former Kentucky coach Rick Pitino has brought the Cardinals back from the malaise of the latter years of the Denny Crum age to annual championship contention.
Kentucky fans loathe Pitino as much as Louisvillians love him, and Cardinals fans have serious contempt for UK coach John Calipari and everything the Wildcats program stands for and against.
This year’s NCAA Tourney match-up, the second in three years, will for a short period of time settle the matter of who is the king of Blue Glass Basketball. In 2012, Kentucky and Louisville met in the Final Four, and Kentucky won 69-61 on their road to the lone National Championship of the John Calipari one-and-done era.
Last year’s championship team from Louisville did not enjoy the privilege of going through Kentucky on their way to triumph as Kentucky failed to qualify for the Big Dance and lost to Robert Morris in the opening round of the NIT.
Louisville was by far the cooler of the two teams when I was a kid. The Cardinals were a loose group who overwhelmed opponents with the athleticism of players like Darrell Griffith, Bobby Turner, Poncho Wright, Derek Smith, Rodney and Scooter McCray, and the thumbless Wiley Brown. They were the Doctors of Dunk, made Metro Seven basketball at Freedom Hall the hottest ticket in town, and won the 1980 NCAA Championship in Indianapolis.
Kentucky was a corporate outfit led by Joe B. Hall, with a lot of (mostly) white guys who played with precision. Rick Robey, Mike Phillips, Kyle Macy, James Lee, Jay Shidler, Jack Givens, and Sam Bowie filled their roles well. Kentucky was the cream of the crop in the SEC during that time and won the 1978 National Championship.
The all-time series lead comfortably belongs to Kentucky at 31-15, and one piece of bad news for the Cardinals is that Kentucky has never failed to win a second after winning one game through the 46-games. The Wildcats have won four in a row three times, three in a row three times, five in a row once, and two in a row just once. Kentucky won December 28, 2013, while Louisville won December 29, 2012. That either means that Louisville is due not to allow UK to win a second consecutive game, or that Kentucky is due.
Indianapolis is great at hosting enormous sporting events and making fans fee at home, but it should brace for a different level of fan this weekend. This isn’t the Super Bowl or Indianapolis 500. For Indiana’s neighbors to the south, it’s much bigger than that.