National Columnist

Heaven help the losing side in this Louisville-Kentucky grudge match


Kentucky against Louisville in December is so intense, you can taste it. And it tastes just right. It's your chocolate falling into my peanut butter. It's 12 ounces of the finest steak in the house. It's that first cold beer on a hot day.

Kentucky against Louisville in the Final Four? It's so intense, you can feel it. And it feels like too much. It's 19 peanut-butter cups for breakfast. It's three pounds of steak for lunch. It's a keg of beer, all for you, and you can't stop drinking until you throw up.

It's nauseating, is what it is, and this Kentucky-Louisville game on Saturday is going to leave the mother of all hangovers.

Oh, sorry. Is this where I was supposed to be excited for this crazy game? Can't do it. This game hits too close to home -- literally, it's too close to where I live -- for me to feel anything but uneasy. This game has always been a possibility, a Final Four matchup between two schools with 24 combined Final Four appearances between them. It was a matter of time before Louisville and Kentucky met for stakes as high as these, and I realize that. This was the game you could see coming from a long way away, like a rattlesnake in the distance.

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You just hoped you'd never actually step on the damn thing.

Well, here we go. We're stepping barefoot around Kentucky -- no barefoot jokes, please -- and someone's going to get bit. The wound for the loser of this game won't be fatal, no, but it'll swell and fester and then the agony will really set in when the loser realizes the winners are actually enjoying its pain. Not even a rattler would be so cold as to bite you, then do a victory dance as you writhe in pain.

That's what this game will be for the loser, and I'm not trying to be negative here. I'm trying to be compassionate. But if you're not in the mood for a compassion lesson from me, how about one from the most compassionate person we all know? Well, Dr. Phil isn't available, so here's a lesson in compassion from Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Coach K is one of the most uniquely qualified people in basketball to speak about a game as big as Kentucky-Louisville in the Final Four, because for years Coach K has looked into the distance and seen a rattlesnake with Duke's name all over it. For years Coach K has contemplated the idea of having to face archrival North Carolina in the Final Four or worse, the title game, and he wants no part of it. Not out of fear, but out of compassion.

"I can live with losing to any school," Krzyzewski once said, "but what would happen in this area, people-wise, if one of us beat the other in the championship game ... I wouldn't wish [that] on anybody, it would be so horrible."

Title game, Final Four, in today's college basketball it's almost the same thing. And it's scary, the idea that Kentucky and Louisville will play for stakes so high. This is Alabama-Auburn, but not in the Iron Bowl -- in the BCS title game.

Basketball in Kentucky is everything, and these fans do not like each other, and the bragging rights on the line are simply too much. My concern isn't for the players, because the players will be fine. None of the 10 starters on Saturday is a native of Kentucky, so while I have no doubt that a guy like Terrence Jones from Portland, Ore., loves Kentucky, and a guy like Russ Smith from New York City loves Louisville, I'm skeptical that Jones hates Louisville, and that Smith hates Kentucky. Hate the other side? That's not how athletes are wired, and good for them.

Because it's just a game.

But fans ... it's not just a game to you, and I get that. I love that. If it were only a game, you wouldn't devour information on the Internet, generating the passion that pays, frankly, my salary. I don't just want you on that wall -- I need you on that wall. But when this game is over, do me a favor: Stay on that wall, huh?

Don't jump.

Don't get caught up in the cold war between John Calipari and Rick Pitino, who thus far have said all the right stuff about their relationship -- both saying, basically, that they have no relationship -- though we all suspect that they distrust, dislike and probably even despise each other. They are leaders, but don't follow their lead.

I mean, this is scary stuff. A few weeks ago, the city of Kansas City wasn't big enough for fans of Kansas and Missouri. Both schools were in town for the Big 12 tournament, and fights broke out all over the place. A former Kansas linebacker was hospitalized with facial injuries that required surgery, causing organizers of the Omaha pod -- where Kansas and Missouri were sent for the NCAA tournament -- to prepare for the worst, and causing Kansas coach Bill Self to lament passion that becomes poison.

"I understand you don't have to like each other," Self said. "I don't understand some of the hostility that goes with it."

Hostility will be in the air this week in New Orleans. It's in the air right now in Kentucky, where two elderly fans -- one from each school --got into a fistfight Monday during dialysis, for crying out loud. The Kentucky state line is just a few miles from my house, and it's where some of my best friends live -- and they are divided between the Wildcats and Cardinals. They're nervous, and I don't blame them. They're trying not to act scared, but they are. Both sides. They want to win this game, but more than that, they don't want to lose. Not to that team. Not if it means living within earshot of those folks, those fans, for the rest of their lives.

Mike Krzyzewski was right. Losing a game like this -- you wouldn't wish that on anybody. But it'll happen to someone Saturday night in New Orleans. In a grudge match that surpasses anything I've ever seen, Kentucky will play Louisville for a spot in the title game.

God help us all.

Gregg Doyel is a columnist for 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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