|Kentucky beat Louisville on Dec. 31, 2011 in Lexington. (US Presswire)|
NEW ORLEANS -- You've heard plenty about the intensity and meaning behind the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry. These two fan bases hate each other more than ... well, you know all the analogies by now. If you want or need any sort of all-encompassing history lesson, I can't recommend this link enough. But the most surprising thing about the century-old skirmish: the low total of games played between the programs. Saturday's national semifinal at the New Orleans Superdome will be meeting No. 44 between Kentucky blue and Louisville red.
As a comparison, Duke and North Carolina have played 234 times. Kansas and Missouri, a rivalry so hated it nearly equals the visceral emotional tug of UK-U of L, have played 265 times. Kansas and Missouri's rivalry, on the court, has ended -- for now -- for the same reasons Kentucky and Louisville have only played 44 times: big egos and stubbornness thicker than southern humidity. Missouri's bolt to the SEC prompted Kansas to cancel the rivalry. If Missouri and Kansas go silent for decades, you'll then understand why Kentucky and Louisville refused to budge from the time Warren G. Harding was in office until Ronald Reagan took the oath.
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And had it not been for a chance encounter in the 1983 NCAA tournament, a matchup known as the "Dream Game," who knows how many fewer games between the 'Cats and the Cards we'd have. That 80-68 Louisville victory in the Elite Eight prompted Kentucky governor John Y. Brown Jr. to push a bill through the state legislature that mandated the schools play each other each year.
Thank God for that. The teams played nine times in the early part of the 20th century, then went through a 60-year cold war that only saw meetings between the programs when postseason play dictated the two look at each other. It's really incredible and antithetical to what we consider mandatory to our sports rivalries. You know, actually playing the other guy. These two hated one and other so much they couldn't even bear to play the damn game! That's next-level hate, and to be honest I'm not sure why that should be propped up so much. Robbing fans of this game for more than 60 years was dumb, even if it saved many fists from getting broken and just as much household furniture from a similar fate.
The most appropriate coinciding of themes and undercurrents with the two schools' rivalry is that the current head coaches. They match that brand of bullheadedness that has driven this story line and they clash well beyond anything reasonable. The feelings of Rick Pitino and John Calipari toward each other, in their truest form, are embeddable with the rivalry's most prominent themes.
The Battle for the Bluegrass. It reaches a head with steam hotter than the surface of the sun this Saturday. Yes, hyperbole is now mandatory when filing copy from here at the Superdome. The vibe down in the Big Easy is hard to miss. Just complete optimism and appreciation for getting this kind of game on the biggest collegiate setting. For more perspective on that appreciation, here's the timeline of significant events between Louisville and Kentucky basketball, going back the beginning:
1798: The University of Louisville is founded.
1865: The University of Kentucky is founded.
Feb. 5, 1913: The first game between the basketball teams is played. Kentucky wins, 34-10, establishing a foundation of mental superiority over Louisville that lasts until this day.
1930: Adolph Rupp becomes the head coach at Kentucky. His arrival is perceived to have a big part of the rivalry's hiatus through the '30s, '40s and '50s.
March 27, 1948: The teams play in their most unique, unexpected setting: in New York City for the U.S. Olympic trials. Kentucky blows out the Cardinals, 91-57.
March 13, 1959: Louisville defeats UK 76-61 and holds the trump card over the Wildcats for 24 years, until ...
March 26, 1983: Lancaster Gordon scores 24 points and leads Louisville to an 80-68 overtime win in the Elite Eight, unofficially viewed as the biggest game in the history of the rivalry -- until now.
Spring, 1983: Kentucky legislature passes a bill that dictates the schools must schedule each other.
Nov. 26, 1983: For the first time in 61 years, a game between Kentucky and Louisville is played within state borders. Kentucky avenges its Elite Eight loss, winning 65-44.
Dec. 29, 1990: Despite rebuilding a program in the wake of devastating NCAA sanctions, Pitino, in his second year at Kentucky, goes into Freedom Hall and beats Louisville, 93-85. The game was not that close, either. It's a bragging card Kentucky fans still use to this day, though awkwardly now since Pitino coaches the red.
Dec. 29, 2001: Pitino coaches against Kentucky for the first time -- and it's at Lexington. He is emphatically booed. But Kentucky fans soon cheer, as the unranked 'Cats defeat No. 6 Louisville 82-62.
Dec. 27, 2003: No. 20 Louisville defeats second-ranked Kentucky, in Lexington, 65-56.
Dec. 18, 2004: Trailing by three, Patrick Sparks is fouled while shooting a 3-pointer. He hits all three shots and gives Kentucky the 60-58 win in Louisville. It's what many Kentucky fans consider to be either the best or second-best victory over Louisville in program history.
Jan. 3, 2010: Kentucky plays Louisville for the first time with Calipari and Pitino as coaches. It's arguably as physical a game as the rivalry's ever seen, as UK's DeMarcus Cousins and Louisville's Jared Swopshire (who will play in the game Saturday) get into a tussle before either team scores a point. Kentucky wins, 71-62.
Dec. 31, 2011: The two schools meet for the first time with both ranked in the top five in the AP poll. No. 3 Kentucky defeats No. 4 Louisville, 69-62.
Notes and nuggets
• Since the rivalry was renewed, Kentucky leads the series 20-11. All-time, it's a 29-14 UK advantage.
• Ten times the Battle for the Bluegrass has been decided by five points or less. Kentucky's won seven of those games.
• John Calipari is undefeated against Louisville (3-0) since he's been at Kentucky.
• As head coaches, Pitino and Calipari are 8-8 against each other.
• Approximate undergraduate enrollment: Kentucky: 27,200; Louisville: 21,900.
• Kentucky's longest winning streak is five games, which began in 1916, then stayed dormant when the rivalry was halted in 1922, resuming — and ending — in 1951.
• Saturday's semifinal will be the fifth meeting between the two teams in tournament play. The teams have split the previous four meetings. Kentucky won in the first round in 1951 (79-68) and the Sweet 16 in 1984 (72-67). Louisville won in the Sweet 16 in 1959 (76-71) and the Elite Eight in 1983 (80-68). The '83 game is the only overtime decision in the rivalry's history.
• Kentucky holds the two largest margins of victory in the rivalry: 91–57 (1948) and 85-51 (1986).