National Columnist

L'ville stays classy as it begins Big Dance run on Kentucky's court

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LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Robert Morris stuck the knife into Kentucky on Tuesday night, a blow that was fatal to the Wildcats' season. One day later Louisville's players and coaches showed up at Kentucky's gym, Rupp Arena, and were given the chance to twist the knife.

Louisville passed.

This wasn't mercy so much as it was respect -- and focus. Kentucky's season is over. Louisville's season, the most important part, is just starting. For Louisville that's enough.

That it will start Thursday at Rupp Arena, underneath the banners of Big Blue Nation, isn't the point for the Cardinals. Winning their NCAA Tournament opener? That's the point. Seems to be the only point, too.

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"Just to win this first game would be amazing," Louisville point guard Peyton Siva said Wednesday, declining to go along with a loaded question about the potential thrill, 10 years from now, of looking back on a national championship run and knowing it began at Rupp.

"Ten years from now it would be great to look back at this moment," he said. "We're focused on North Carolina A&T. To get this first one [and to say], 'Yeah, we won that first game being the No. 1 overall seed.'"

But that wasn't the question, Peyton. The question was about Rupp. About playing here. Louisville will. Kentucky won't.

Given another crack at it, Peyton couldn't resist. He took a potshot.

At himself.

"I'm just happy not to play Kentucky here -- I haven't had great success playing Kentucky at Kentucky," said Siva, who is 2-for-14 in two losses to the Wildcats at Rupp. "But it feels good to have the No. 1 overall seed and play in a closer location, for our fans to come out and watch us."

That wasn't the answer the media wanted. We wanted Louisville to gloat. Maybe we expected them to gloat. Hell, we in the media gloat. A radio station in Louisville pushed the gloat-meter to the edge Wednesday morning by having in studio a guest named Robert Morris. Get it? Robert Morris!

That's how the media behaves. How would college kids behave? The media wanted to find out, so we kept asking Louisville's players and coaches about Rupp Arena and starting the journey here.

This is your chance to gloat, Louisville. Take it.

But, no.

"Sometimes fans really think it's like a huge, hated rivalry [with Kentucky]," said Louisville junior wing Luke Hancock. "It's not quite like that with the players. We don't wish them to have a bad season or anything like that, and not be here."

Hancock was right about the fans, or the loudest portion of the fan bases. At their worst they are tiny people, reveling in the failures of the other side or even fighting, infamously, at a dialysis clinic a few days before the 2012 Final Four meeting between Kentucky and Louisville.

Both fan bases have the opportunity here to get it right. Kentucky fans can step aside and let Louisville do what Louisville will do at Rupp, just as Louisville fans stepped aside a year ago when Kentucky started its journey to the 2012 national title by winning its first two tournament games at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville.

Louisville fans can follow the gracious lead of their players and their coach, Rick Pitino -- his comments are coming in a minute -- and focus on Louisville and only Louisville. There is salt to be poured in the wounds at Kentucky, but Kentucky coach John Calipari is handling that on his own.

"The stuff I had to accept this year, the program almost got hijacked," Calipari had said Tuesday night after the NIT loss to Robert Morris. "Never in my career have I surrendered in any way to any team, and I did at times this year. To try to save guys, to try to help guys, and it never works."

Calipari already is looking ahead to next season, to the competition some of his most entitled, least likeable players from this 2012-13 season will face when an all-time great recruiting class shows up. That class grew by one on Wednesday, of all days, when top-five recruit Julius Randle committed to the Wildcats.

Next season the rivalry could tilt back to Kentucky. Or maybe not. Who knows? This season, though, belongs to Louisville. The Cardinals beat Kentucky in December, they won the Big East Tournament, they earned the No. 1 overall seed and they could play four NCAA tournament games in front of an enormous home crowd. The Midwest Regional will be held at Indianapolis, less than two hours away. First, though, is Rupp.

Pitino was asked several times Wednesday about playing at Rupp, and one of his first moves was to make like Siva and take a potshot at himself, reminding the media that Louisville played an NCAA Tournament game at Rupp as recently as 2007 -- and lost, to Texas A&M.

"Somebody told me later on that [A&M coach] Billy Gillispie was hired [at Kentucky] because he beat Louisville that night," Pitino said. "Well that's ridiculous."

Pitino then talked about the rivalry with Kentucky, a rivalry he knows better than most, seeing how he has coached both teams.

"We wanted to beat their brains out in the [2012 national] semifinals," Pitino said. "We didn't, and when we didn't I wanted them to bring back the championship.

"I don't root against Kentucky except for one game. The one game a year we play, we want to win. So it wouldn't be that rewarding winning here. What would be rewarding is that we would [advance] to Indianapolis."

First, though, is the here and now. On Wednesday that meant driving the hour or so from Louisville to Lexington, pulling into Rupp Arena and getting ready to meet the media. This being the home of Kentucky, one of the first people Peyton Siva saw when he stepped off the bus at Rupp was former Wildcats All-American Jamal Mashburn.

Siva told the media he had an immediate, visceral reaction.

"I want to take a picture with him later," Siva said.


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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