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Sun, Feb 7, 2016

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Louisville sets up potential epic showdown vs. Kentucky in Final Four

by | CBSSports.com College Basketball Blogger

PHOENIX -- We may be on the precipice of the most anticipated, frenzied, hated, heated, hellish and harsh Final Four game in the history of the NCAA tournament.

By virtue of its come-from-behind 72-68 win over Florida in the Elite Eight on Saturday, Louisville just applied more pressure to Kentucky than any fan base, even Big Blue Nation, could conjure against any program.

We won. We're waiting for you. Everyone's waiting for you. Now don't blow it.

What a sweet turn of events, the way the bracket's schedule allowed Louisville, the West's No. 4 seed, to get the first crack at getting into the national semifinals. Amazingly, it peeled off a 23-8 run in the final 10 minutes to rob Billy Donovan of his first win over mentor Rick Pitino (Donovan falls to 0-7 lifetime).

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It's incredible how this game disintegrated for Florida the same way the Gators gave away an 11-point lead to Butler in last year's regional semifinal. Despite the fact Pitino said Florida "outplayed" his team, the Gators scored two field goals in the final 8:14. The Gators died by the 3, as anticipated, going 0 for 9 in the second half after sinking 8 out of 11 in the first 20 minutes.

Louisville fought off Florida's deep shooting, its size and the frequent Fox 40 whistles from the three-man officiating crew. Star point guard Peyton Siva fouled out with 3:58 remaining. With two minutes to go, the team was out of timeouts. It was, again, Russ Smith's team -- no Siva, no stoppages. He and Gorgui Dieng were playing with three fouls. Starters Kyle Kuric and Chane Behanan had four.

And again, Louisville won the game and many were left to rethink the previous two hours and try to make sense of how that could've happened.

After the ceremonial net-cutting, picture-taking and chest-thumping ended, the Louisville locker room still buzzed. They'd become a Final Four team -- somehow. Like West Virginia in 2010 and UConn in 2011, Louisville weaved its way to a Big East tournament title and has channeled that positive mid-March run and elongated it into a late-March stampede. The players' celebration was interrupted by the question that was as obvious as the hatred between the Bluegrass State's two prominent fan bases.

Do you guys want to play Kentucky?

They were prepared for this as much as they were expecting to wind up in the Final Four in the first place. The young Louisville team went politically correct. Well, all but one did. While everyone else toed company line and maintained they didn't care if it was Kentucky or Baylor, Louisville senior Chris Smith was no-bones-about-it insistent on his rooting desires come Sunday afternoon.

"I wanna play Kentucky," he said. "I wanna play Kentucky. We've lost to them two years in a row. I'm sick of losing to them. It's a statement game for us. Everybody wants to rise to the occasion, and you wanna play the No. 1 seed. If you beat the No. 1 team, what does that make you?"

If you couldn't pick Smith out of a lineup, know that he's no scrub. He's started all but two games this year for Pitino. When the net came down off the rim 20 minutes after Louisville's victory, Smith was the last one to snip it free from the iron. He proudly wore his twine necklace as he packed up his things -- the game ball included. No player carries more clout on this team than Smith.

"We want to play Kentucky for revenge," Smith said. "And they have, what, six or seven pros on their team? If you want to be a pro you've got to beat a pro. Everybody cares, but they're not going to say it. I'm a senior, and I'm going to say it. If I eat my words, I eat my words, but at the end of the day I want to play Kentucky."

Wildcat fans that are reading this have now reached the point where they're cackling at their computers and saying, "Be careful what you wish for."

The anticipation has already begun. Kentucky and Louisville fans alike are already playing this game out in their heads -- keeping no mind to the fact that Kentucky still has to beat a team filled with almost as many pros as it has. No one invested in this team that lives inside Kentucky's borders will sleep much Saturday night because of things like this.

"Peyton Siva wasn't Peyton Siva when we played them. Gorgui Dieng is just as good as Anthony Davis, I would say, right now," Chris Smith said, and now Kentucky fans are completely beside themselves. "Chane Behanan is probably the third-best power forward in college basketball right now."

Smith's words were the fuel of possible hyperbole, a completely forgivable stance as he was high on life and a Final Four berth that's come in one of Pitino's greatest coaching jobs ever. As for Pitino, he appreciates the rivalry but he's already trying to distance himself from the craze that will take over his life -- it will not be basketball, it will be full-fledged drama and distraction -- if John Calipari and Kentucky can get to their second straight Final Four.

"I keep trying to tell our fans, we're not Kentucky, we have no desire to be Kentucky," he said. "We think they're excellent. We think they're great. I coached there. It's great. Great tradition. We want to be Louisville. We have a different mission. They have a different mission."

Yet they have the same one, of course. And now they're almost perfectly aligned. But, please, Rick, tell us more about the rivalry you don't pay much mind to.

"There's so much petty jealousies, when I was at Kentucky we would never get jealous of Louisville in any way possible. We were just appreciative of being in Kentucky. The measuring stick, because they're doing so well, our fans never appreciated a really good season that was decimated by injuries. ... If that happens, it would be awesome. But we would say, the way I look at Kentucky and the way I look at their coaching staff, I marvel at excellence. I respect excellence. So I've got great respect for excellence. But I don't get into these petty things, Kentucky-Louisville. To me it's nonsense."

It's not nonsense, though. It's the best part -- seriously, the best part -- of sports. The craziest part, too, but what drives sports programs and teams to prominence, relevance, continued existence is the desire to do better, to win big and to beat the most familiar and hated opponents. In college basketball, North Carolina and Duke is the most mainstream rivalry and Kentucky-Louisville is the least reasonable. That gives it the most ripe, most real, best drama. It's the spectacle the Final Four needs to throw college basketball into the mainstream in a way that it hasn't been in years -- decades, maybe.

"There will be people at Kentucky that will have a nervous breakdown if they lose to us," Pitino said. "You've got to watch. They've got to put the fences up on bridges. There will be people consumed by Louisville. While I think it's a great honor to play a great team. I think it's a great honor. There's no jealousy on our part if they get there."

The players want it. They do. On record, everyone but Chris Smith will play nice. But the Cardinals will be in the air, heading home, around 2 p.m. ET time when Kentucky and Baylor tip Sunday. Kuric turned to a trainer and asked if the team would, at least, be able to watch the game on the TV.

"Make that happen," he said.

They know. They care. And so do we. College basketball needs this. Kentucky, don't let everybody down.


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