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Kentucky vs. Louisville in Final Four? Get ready for unprecedented buildup


ATLANTA -- The Louisville Cardinals boarded a flight home from Phoenix on Sunday afternoon at around 2 ET and were traveling peacefully at 30,000 feet while Kentucky dismantled Baylor here at the Georgia Dome. The Big East players did not, I'm told, watch a single minute of the Wildcats' 82-70 victory. But when they landed, they got the score.

And they must know now the week they're about to experience is unlike anything they've ever experienced in their lives.

Or our lives.

Or in the history of college basketball.

"I think it'll probably be pretty crazy," Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said. "You guys are gonna have fun."

Oh, are we ever.

Congrats to Baylor on a terrific season that resulted in a second Elite Eight in three years, and thank you to Baylor for not screwing this up. I mean both of those things sincerely. Because though the Bears making the Final Four for the first time since 1950 would've been a terrific story to chronicle, it pales in comparison Kentucky vs. Louisville in New Orleans.

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That's the story.

The Wildcats vs. the Cardinals.

Coach John Calipari vs. Coach Rick Pitino.

"We don't send each other Christmas cards," Calipari acknowledged before describing he and Pitino as "friendly acquaintances," presumably because he didn't think mumbling "I hate Rick's [bleeping] guts" would be acceptable on this stage. But, rest assured, that's mostly how Calipari feels.

And it's how Pitino feels, too. The bitterness is years in the making and rooted deeply, and even their mutual friends haven't been able to convince the two highest-profile people in Kentucky to bury their differences and respect each other personally and professionally.

And now they'll meet in the Final Four.

In New Orleans.

The buildup in the state over the next six days will be ... something.

"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 the bridges. There will be people consumed by Louisville."

Most notably Calipari.

The man who has now taken three different schools to a total of four Final Fours -- yes, I know two of them have been vacated, but whatever -- did a nice job of deflecting the spotlight that'll shine on him and Pitino this week, and he said over and over again Sunday that he's looking at this game no differently than any other.

But that's impossible. And the truth is that, on some level, this matchup that is a sportswriter's dream has to be Calipari's worst nightmare.

Think about it.

The only thing worse than Calipari losing in the Final Four with this roster would be Calipari losing to Pitino's Cardinals in the Final Four with this roster. It would crush the Big Blue Nation more than Christian Laettner's buzzer-beater in the 1992 East Regional final and sink Calipari worse than Mario Chalmers' buzzer-beater in the 2008 national title game.

Kentucky fans might really never get over it.

Calipari almost certainly wouldn't.

Which is probably why Pitino and his players seemed downright giddy Saturday discussing the possibility of playing Kentucky while Calipari and his players were less interested Sunday in talking about the specifics that make this national semifinal juicier than anything we've experienced in a while.

This is the fourth time in history that two in-state schools have met in the Final Four and the first time since 1962. And though I can't speak to what it was like back then when Ohio State and Cincinnati clashed in Freedom Hall with a title on the line because I was still 15 years from being born, I can't imagine it was more intense than what the Superdome figures to be Saturday night when Kentucky-Louisville tips at 6:09 ET.

Between now and then, the story will build.

I'll write stories.

You'll read stories.

All the television networks will produce stories, and you'll watch them just like I'll watch them. You'll hear about Calipari and Pitino's past and listen to people try to pinpoint where their relationship turned bad for good. You'll hear about them fighting over Marquis Teague (Calipari won that one) and Chane Behanan (Pitino won that one). You'll hear about the New Year's Eve game. You'll hear about when the two coaches met in the 1996 Final Four while Calipari was at UMass and Pitino was at Kentucky. And you'll probably hear about vacated Final Fours and extramarital affairs at some point, too, because, you know, there's a lot of time to fill.

And then the game will begin and Kentucky and Louisville will play for 40 minutes.

Calipari will insist it's just another game.

But that's not true, and he knows it.

What this represents is the biggest game of his career.

God help him if he somehow loses it.

Gary Parrish is a senior college basketball columnist for CBSSports.com and college basketball insider for the CBS Sports Network. The Mississippi native also hosts an award-winning radio show in Memphis. He lives in that area with his wife, two sons and two dogs.

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