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CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Kentucky-Louisville go to great hype in Final Four

In-state rivalry game overshadows matchup of Ohio State-Kansas, two other schools with solid pedigrees.

March 30, 2012|Chris Dufresne
  • Louisville Coach Rick Pitino understands the importance of the Cardinals' Final Four game against Kentucky, having been the Wildcats' coach at one time.
Louisville Coach Rick Pitino understands the importance of the Cardinals'… (Gerald Herbert / Associated…)

NEW ORLEANS — Folks on Bourbon Street and other rues are saying this might be the best Final Two in NCAA history.

"All four teams here are great," Ohio State guard Aaron Craft said Friday.

Oh yeah — four. But you wouldn't know it based on the buildup for Saturday's NCAA semifinal between Kentucky and Louisville.

"I would say this is probably the most amped-up Final Four game in college basketball history," Louisville guard Peyton Siva said.

Few big games in history — OK, no big game in history — has been preceded by rival fans getting in a fight while awaiting dialysis treatment.

"It's a crazy world," Louisville guard Chane Behanan said.

Well, not everywhere.

It was no coincidence CBS made Louisville and Kentucky the first game in a doubleheader at the Superdome. The schools might have refused the second billing offered, and accepted, by Kansas and Ohio State.

Though the second game is solid, Kentucky-Louisville could be the summer reality TV replacement for "Jersey Shore."

The game has everything. It pits two storied programs from the same state, with a combined nine national titles, playing on a football field with no helmets.

The stakes could not be higher … for Kentucky. Louisville is playing with house money. The Cardinals, No. 4 in the West, are the lowest seeded team in the field.

No one was chanting "Final Four" when Louisville lost by 31 points at Providence on Jan. 10. But that just makes the setup sweeter, Louisville chugging uphill against the mighty Kentucky machine. Louisville was known as "Kentucky's little brother" when Eddie Sutton coached in Lexington.

Kentucky is supposed to win it all this year. The Wildcats are the better team, with the better record. Kentucky won the first meeting in Lexington on Dec. 31.

Kentucky Coach John Calipari has five likely first-round NBA picks on his roster. Gorgui Dieng, Louisville's 22-year-old center from Senegal, didn't speak English three years ago.

So if Louisville was to somehow pull off this upset? "It would be like the [Kentucky] Derby on crack," Louisville senior guard Chris Smith said.

Kentucky Coach Rick Pitino has worked both sides of the screaming match. He coached Kentucky to its sixth national title in 1996, but now is looking to coach Louisville to its third.

An outsider from New York, Pitino has lived the rivalry from each city's epicenter. He said the rivalry is unique, born of a racial divide.

"We are the minority university," Pitino said of Louisville. "They are the university of privilege, so to speak. That's where the rivalry really started.…The lines are no longer racially motivated. It's just pure hatred."

The game is role reversal from 1996, when Pitino's all-star Kentucky squad faced Calipari's Massachusetts team in a national semifinal.

All the pressure was on Kentucky then too, and Pitino's team defeated UMass and then Syracuse for the title.

Kentucky is in the same pressure pit now, only with Calipari as coach. Pitino has been tweaking the story line all week while Calipari has tried to tone down the rhetoric.

"We're staying above the fray, the drama," Calipari said. "If you want to buy into the drama, then you buy into it. If you want play basketball, we're playing a terrific basketball team tomorrow.... That's all we're dealing with."

The good news for the winner of Saturday's other game is that one team — Kentucky or Louisville — is going home Sunday.

History has proved a lopsided hype-meter pairing in a national semifinal does not always guarantee a championship.

The classic example was 1983, when Houston and Louisville faced off at Albuquerque. The other semifinal was North Carolina State versus Georgia.

Houston beat Louisville but lost to North Carolina State. You may remember the post-victory romp by Jim Valvano.

In 1985, one side of the Final Four bracket was dominated by St. John's and Georgetown, the only two teams to be ranked No.1 that season.

The 1985 national champion, though, was eighth-seeded Villanova, which shocked Georgetown, 66-64, in the championship game.

In 1988, the bottom half of the bracket featured No.1-seeded schools Arizona and Oklahoma. The champion, though, came from the other side, as sixth-seeded Kansas pulled the title-game upset over Oklahoma.

In few other circumstances could Kansas vs. Ohio State be eclipsed — it took the magnitude of Kentucky-Louisville.

Ohio State and Kansas are hardly big-stage newcomers. Ohio State hasn't won a national title since 1960, but has Final Four appearances as recently as 1999 and 2007.

Kansas is one of the college game's pedigree programs. Bill Self, who coached the Jayhawks to a national title in 2008, is still the coach.

Yet, it's almost like Kansas arrived in New Orleans in the dead of night, or through a side door.

"I kind of like it, to be honest," Self said. "We've been the hunted, it seems like, for a while. We have kind of flown under the radar by Kansas standards of late, which I think has been very healthy for a team that's just trying to find themselves."

Lost in the Louisville-Kentucky haze is a second game that will feature a premier matchup of big men in Ohio State's Jared Sullinger vs. Kansas' Thomas Robinson. Back spasms denied Sullinger a chance to face Robinson when Kansas beat Ohio State on Dec. 10.

"It was like two seasons ago," Self said. "I can barely remember the game without watching the tape."

Self is trying to make this a game to remember.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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