Inside every dark cloud, there’s a silver lining. And with the University of Louisville Cardinals winning the 2013 Men’s Basketball Championship, there’s a big one for Big Blue Nation and the folks in Red.
The Rivalry just got real.
Since the teams resumed playing each other in basketball back in 1983, it’s been rare that both teams have been great at the same time. Even this year, the Cardinals won with the Cats not even in the NCAA Tournament. But going forward… wow. Just think about it.
I get goosebumps.
The talking heads and sports know-it-alls, especially from ESPN, would have you believe that the best rivalry anywhere is Duke vs. North Carolina. And for years, I have respectfully, and not so respectfully, disagreed. The Blue Devils and the Tar Heels play, at minimum, twice per year and often play three times when they meet in the ACC post season tournament. The Cards and the Cats play once a year, in the Dream Game, for all the marbles. And, on those rare times the two schools play twice in one season, we save those matchups for the NCAA Tournament (see 1983, 2012). And as noted sports writer Bomani Jones pointed out via Twitter, in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, there’s not much else. There’s no professional sports teams here and there’s very little we can get truly excited about and college basketball is one of those things.
When Rick Pitino was hired by the University of Louisville to replace coaching legend Denny Crum in 2001, I was excited. Of course, like most of the Big Blue Nation, I was a bit puzzled by the move as it’s not often you see an individual coach at one school and then coach at a rival school. But what I knew, and said at the time, is that this move was going to be the best thing for the UK/UL rivalry. When Pitino took over, the Wildcats were still basking in the glow of three straight NCAA titles games, with two championships and the Cardinals… well… weren’t very good. And as a result, the Dream Game was relegated to ESPN2 and sandwiched between two less than stellar matchups with a D-List announcing crew.
As a fan of either school, this was disappointing and wholly unacceptable.
I knew that Pitino coaching at Louisville and with, at the time, Tubby Smith coaching at Kentucky, it would only be a matter of time before the game once again took it’s place as one the college basketball’s must watch games. And now, CBS uses that game to kick off it’s coverage of college basketball.
Pitino took the Cards to Final Four in 2005 and that was the same point the Wildcats began to fade from the national spotlight (thank you, Billy G). But in 2009, UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart made the hire that would take the Dream Game from just one of the games to watch in college basketball to THE game to watch. Barnhart hired John Calipari. And Rick Pitino had to watch a brash, cocky younger version of himself return the program that he himself rebuilt from the ashes of NCAA probation back to the top of the college basketball world. And the world waited for Rick’s response.
Both men, Calipari and Pitino, are both great coaches. Both have great egos. And both connect to their fan bases in ways that other coaches simply can’t or won’t. Coach Cal is just as smug and arrogant as the Big Blue Nation. Coach Pitino carries the chip on his shoulder for all of the Cardinal fans that are tired of derisively being referred to as Kentucky’s “Little Brother.” The matches are perfect.
Since Cal arrived in Lexington, both Louisville and Kentucky have been to one Final Four and won an NCAA title. The Wildcats are favored to win the 2014 title. And the Cards figure to make some waves in their first year in the NCAA. Cal is bringing in top rated class after top rated class. Pitino is taking a group of hardened kids and molding into defensive monsters. The fans don’t like each other. The coaches don’t like each other. With both teams to stay atop college basketball’s elite, it’s hard to argue that the center of the college basketball universe is anywhere else but somewhere on Interstate 64 between Louisville and Lexington.
The Rivalry is reborn. And we will be witnesses.