|The players are cherishing this experience -- but there's no ill will on either side. (Getty Images)|
NEW ORLEANS -- Here's the unfortunate truth about the vicious Kentucky-Louisville rivalry that reaches its dramatic climax Saturday night at the Superdome: the players don't care about it. The coaches may hate each other, but their players don't. These teams don't even come close to that bad-blood behavior. In fact, there's something here that goes beyond true respect -- true friendship. Nearly every significant player is buddies or nearly best friends with at least one of his counterparts.
Freshmen Marquis Teague and Chane Behanan know each other well and have for years. Behanan's also very close with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and the two have swapped texts frequently this year, which the case for many UK and U of L players.
“We talk about how our schools are, our communities, how the parties are and how hot the girls are,” Behanan said of his conversations with UK's guys.
Terrence Jones and Peyton Siva are beyond buddy-buddy; Siva might not have a closer friend in Division I outside of his teammates.
“Terrence is a great person and a great player,” Siva said. “We don't ever talk about the Louisville and Kentucky rivalry. It's not about basketball. We're from the West Coast and didn't have anything to do with this rivalry until we got here.”
Anthony Davis has become the most prominent player in college basketball this season, and who's been cheering him on since the start of his career? Louisville's Wayne Blackshear. The two have been friends since the fifth grade, when they used to kill off hours of free time at each other's houses. Their parents remain nearly as close of friends as the players, too.
Kentucky-Louisville is for us. Fans, media and all other rationally-yet-irrationally invested spectators in the game. The players? They're friendly to a fault. This rivalry's hatred doesn't get injected into their veins the way it does for the hundreds of thousands of angst-ridden fans that live inside that state's borders.
I spent about 45 minutes combined with the Louisville and Kentucky players today. It's just a bloated, waddling media barrage, of course. All these questions, so many of them the same. How do you feel about playing Kentucky? How do you feel about playing Louisville? What about this rivalry? How about the fans?
The players have clearly become fatigued by the carwash of questions that are more repetitious than even the most droning practice routines. They can't fake it anymore. They understand that it's a huge deal, but it doesn't change the fact that, from a team-to-team perspective, this is just another opponent. Some Kentucky and Louisville fans don't want to read that, but it's true. There is no discourse there. Appreciation for the rivalry? Yes. A vested emotional response to it? Non-existent on both sides. Only Louisville's Chris Smith has this urge and true burn inside of him to stoke something for Kentucky.
“They're probably a little tight right now,” Smith said of Kentucky. “Us, we're having fun, relaxing."
The reason why a lot of this disdain is dormant is due to Kentucky not needing a lot of local talent in its program. The state is pumping out premier players like it once did. Yes, there are big talents still around in the Bluegrass, but it's not a golden age for elite basketball players right now.
Darius Miller is the only UK player who sees significant time that's even from the state. Twenty, 30 years ago it was different. The players hated the other school and hated the other team. Now? There's nothing there. The narrative on the rivalry is fueled by history and the spell of Kentucky bourbon, which can make any story deeper and sweeter and of course more believable. When you don't have players who grow up as Louisville or Kentucky fans, then naturally the intra-state clash will lose most of its venom within the programs.
Again, fortunately, John Calipari and Rick Pitino despise each other, so the rivalry continues to have a human element to it that extends beyond the overarching, overpowering viciousness that will never die off between the fans.