INDIANAPOLIS – Kentucky is a blue state. Kentucky is a red state.
Kentucky is the Wildcats, and the Commonwealth of Calipari. Kentucky is the Cardinals, and the Republic of Pitino. At 40,411 square miles, Kentucky is hardly big enough for the both of them, and that includes Friday night in the Midwest Region.
Kentucky vs. Louisville. Few sentences in college basketball come with more buzz, especially in March.
This from the Kentucky side, and Willie Cauley-Stein. “If you aren’t from Kentucky, you don’t understand it. It’s that simple.”
This from the Louisville side, and Russ Smith, “It’s a rivalry game. There’s no way to run around it.”
Of course, survival and not bragging rights is a much more important issue Friday night.
This from the Kentucky side, and John Calipari: “People grieve for a year after the game. People celebrate for a year after the game. I’ve tried to not make it bigger than what it is, but it doesn’t work. ‘It’s one game. They’re in different leagues.’ It doesn’t matter what I say. But I have told the team: We will not make this game bigger than it is.”
This from the Louisville side, and Rick Pitino: “We’ve gotten used to the noise. We understand what’s at stake. I’ve been in the state 20 years and the game to me has really only had difficult consequences for the loser twice. Once was two years ago when they stopped our run in the Final Four, and the next game we play.”
The next game? Friday night in Lucas Oil Stadium. So now we can put them next to each other.
Kentucky has played basketball for 111 seasons, won 2,137 games and gone to 54 NCAA tournaments.
Louisville has played basketball for 100 seasons, won 1,728 games, and gone to 40 NCAA tournaments. There have only been two tournaments in the past 48 years without at least one of them.
Kentucky has eight national championships, four by 1958. Louisville has three, none before 1980.
This time last spring, all five Kentucky starters were in high school. This time last spring, four Louisville starters were in playing in the national championship game. “I think everybody wants to say experience is going to be on our side,” said Cardinal Luke Hancock. “But they’re not young guys anymore.”
Calipari is 8-2 in Sweet 16 games. Pitino is 11-0 in Sweet 16 games.
“I can tell you very honestly, with all humility, that I know Kentucky in that locker room are not worried about my resume,” Pitino said. “They’re worried about Russ Smith, Luke Hancock, Montrezl Harrell.”
One year ago, Kentucky was losing to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT. One year ago, Louisville was winning the national championship.
Friday will be the 22nd anniversary of the Christian Laettner’s famous jump shot for Duke in a regional final that represents one of the low spots in Kentucky history. Monday will be the one-year anniversary of Kevin Ware breaking his leg in a regional final that represents one of the low spots in Louisville history.
Kentucky was No. 1 in the Associated Press preseason poll, and is now unranked. Louisville was No. 3 and is now No. 5.
They met in December and the score was 73-66. Kentucky won. Louisville lost.
Calipari embraces social media. But he said he wanted his players’ only electronic interaction this week to be watching the History channel or Biography. Pitino pushes it as far away as his arms allow.
Calipari is one of only two coaches to lead three different schools to the Final Four. Pitino is the other.
Kentucky started as the Agricultural and Mechanical College of the Kentucky University. Louisville started as the Jefferson Seminary.
Kentucky’s arena is named after a legendary coach. Louisville’s arena is named after a corporation that sells fried chicken.
Calipari on Louisville: “Of all the teams left, they may be playing better than anybody.”
Pitino on Kentucky: “You have a lot of preparation time this week and you try your best to figure out a team. This is probably one of the more difficult ones that I have faced as a coach, because they have so many weapons that are playing well right now.”
Kentucky is 273rd in the nation in turnover margin. Louisville is first.
Kentucky has lost five of its past 12 games. Louisville has won 14 of its past 15.
Kentucky is counting on size, and the maturation of youth. “Our freshman, it’s all on them,” Calipari said.
Louisville is counting on speed, and the resolve of veterans. “I think there’s a certain psyche behind the game for seniors,” Smith said. “It means a little bit more. It could be their last game.”
Kentucky has banners hanging from the rafters honoring 42 past greats in its program. One of them is Rick Pitino.
Kentucky has beaten Louisville three times in the NCAA tournament, the most recent in 2012, which was considered Bluegrass Armageddon since it was the first time they played in the Final Four.
Louisville has beaten Kentucky twice in the NCAA tournament, the most recent in the 1983 Mideast Region, which was considered Bluegrass Armageddon since it was the first time they had played in 24 years.
Kentucky’s women’s team is also in the Sweet 16. So is Louisville’s.
John Wooden’s last game was beating Kentucky in the 1975 national championship. John Wooden’s next-to-last game was beating Louisville in the 1975 Final Four.
Some have the perception Calipari doesn’t get along with the 61-year-old Pitino. Others have the perception Pitino doesn’t get along with the 55-year-old Calipari. Both perceptions exist despite the fact they’ve known each other since Calipari was 15, when they met at a basketball camp.
This is how Calipari responded on Thursday:
“I would say we’re friends. We were in touch back and forth throughout the year.
“But one, we’re getting older, both of us, and I think I’m not on his mind and he’s not on my mind, so to speak. … The stuff about ‘They’re at each other’s throats,’ it’s just not accurate. I’d be stunned if he thinks of me in a week. Both of us have tough jobs that we have to be engulfed in what we do.”
This is how Pitino responded on Thursday:
“I don’t care about perception because perception is not reality. We’re friends. We respect each other’s programs very much.
“We understand what takes place between the lines. We understand the fans’ intensity, but we don’t personalize our battles. We understand what it’s all about; the best team’s going to win.”
Sometimes the best team is Kentucky. Sometimes, it’s Louisville. And the trash talk from each side rings a bell with the other.
“It’s funny, because it’s so similar,” Cauley-Stein said. “They are more alike than what they really think.”
It might not seem that way at 9:45 p.m. ET Friday.