In 2013, the nation was assaulted by “The Year of the Cardinal” as the University of Louisville Cardinals had a run of almost unparalleled success: a Sugar Bowl victory, a College World Series appearance, a Women’s Basketball National Runner-Up finish and the 2013 Men’s Basketball National Championship. The folks clad in red and black have been throwing the “L’s” up and proclaiming the Cardinals to be the best thing ever. With glee, they’ve tormented the good people of the Big Blue Nation, particularly those who reside within Louisville/Jefferson County, Kentucky. 2013 was a dark, dark time indeed.
As I’ve written before, however, the time of the Cardinal is but a season, but the time of the Wildcat is forever.
It’s 2014 and as we’ve turned the calendar from one year to the next, it’s time to turn the page and put “The Year of the Cardinal” in the dustbin of history. For the second time in three seasons, the Cardinals and the Wildcats are set to meet in the NCAA Tournament. On Friday night in Indianapolis, the best rivalry in college basketball will add another chapter to the storied legacy of the Battle of the Bluegrass.
The most recent meeting, a 73-66 Wildcat victory was the fifth in sixth tries for head coach John Calipari since his arrival in Lexington five years ago. And while past success is not a harbinger of future success, I like Kentucky’s chances to advance to the Elite Eight and play the winner of the Texas/Michigan game for the right to go to the Final Four in Dallas.
Yes, the Cardinals are on a hot stretch, including a 60 point drubbing of Rutgers of the AAC Tournament. They have veterans with championship experience and Rick Pitino’s mastery of the Sweet 16 is the stuff of legend (11-0 at this point in the tournament). But, the Cats have finally found their stride. Since Calipari stated that he was “tweaking” the team prior to the SEC Tournament, the Wildcats have played their best basketball of the season. A season that was teetering on the brink of disappointment now has Kentucky poised to end of the season of their most bitter rival.
In the victory over previously undefeated Wichita State, the young Wildcats found their stride. Andrew Harrison, despite nursing a sore hyper-extended elbow, finally became the steady on court leader that Cal has demanded of him from day one. Aaron Harrison has become a rock solid shooting guard, spotting up for the three pointer or attacking the rim. For the first time all season, James Young looked to be fully engaged on the defensive end, grabbing two key rebounds and hitting a huge three in the last few minutes against the Shockers. Julius Randle not only notched another double-double, he had 6 assists against Wichita State which matched his total for the previous 10 games combined. And with Willie Cauley-Stien, Darkari Johnson and Alex Poythress all rebounding and playing stout interior defense, the preseason number 1 ranked team is finally looking like the team that everyone envisioned at Big Blue Madness.
The Kentucky Wildcats are hitting their stride. Coach Cal has coached his butt off and tweaked this bunch to get them ready for this moment. They are right for the fight. And the Wildcats will be victorious over the Cardinals and play for an opportunity to appear in the school’s 16th Final Four. Let’s go Big Blue.