Posted on: December 30, 2010 2:08 pm
Edited on: December 30, 2010 2:26 pm

In college basketball, there's nothing like UK-UL

Posted by Matt Jones

If your only exposure to college basketball is limited to tuning in around late February and sampling whatever dish ESPN is serving up to get you ready for the end of college basketball season, then this column is for you.  Contrary to what the good folks at the Worldwide Leader and the national columnists who only dip their toe into our fair sport around March Madness may want you to believe, the most intense rivalry in college basketball is not the one that takes place twice a year on Tobacco Road.  No, for sheer emotion, passion and viciousness, the true peak of college basketball rivalry takes place on the I-64 corridor every season in late December.  Kentucky vs. Louisville is the most heated rivalry in college basketball , and nothing else is close.

While I can already hear the outrage emitted from the Duke and UNC fanbases who believe all basketball worth seeing is played either within their 15-501 highway or at the very least, down the road in Greensboro, notice I said “most intense” and not “best”.  I have attended seven Duke-UNC games over the years and am a graduate of one of the institutions.   When it comes to sheer talent and relevance on a national scale, Duke-UNC has been the unparalleled king for the past 25 years.  But talent and television coverage does not intensity make.  Kentucky-Louisville is not the most intense rivalry in the land because the game usually involves the two best programs, but rather, like Alabama-Auburn, UK-UL is the most intense rivalry because it simply matters more to all involved.  A special concoction of factors combine to create an environment between the Wildcats and Cardinals that the overhyped Cameron Crazies and wine and cheese crowd of Chapel Hill could never hope to replicate:

HISTORY --- Unlike UNC and Duke, who are forced by conference affiliation to play each other twice every season, the vitriol created by UK-UL is actually a relatively recent creation.  Until 1983, the schools never had an annual battle, as UK believed in its own superiority to such a degree that it saw no need to downgrade itself to schedule a game with the program Coach Eddie Sutton later called “Little Brother.”  Even as Louisville rose in the 1970s under Denny Crum, culminating in a NCAA title in 1980, UK cruised along whistling obliviously as Cardinal fans demanded a matchup.  Attempts by the NCAA to pair the two teams always fell a bit short, most famously in 1975, when one last John Wooden run kept the two programs from meeting for a National Championship.  The more Cardinal fans howled, the more UK cackled that they would not stoop to UL’s level.

But then came 1983 and the battle known as “The Dream Game.”   The NCAA placed the two teams in the same Regional in Knoxville, Tennessee and fate finally put the programs on the same court.  A battle that led the state’s governor John Y Brown to wear a half-red and half-blue sports coat (a sell out move if there ever was one), saw Louisville win the initial battle between the two programs and be granted ammunition of supposed superiority that it could hold over UK fans in perpetuity.  That was unacceptable to the UK brass, and the rivalry was on, likely never again to be extinguished.   The same intense hatred and feeling of moral superiority that prevented the game from beginning has permeated its existence ever since.

FAN HATRED --- And with that historical backdrop, the hatred between UK and UL fans has yet to diminish over the last 27 years.  To each fan base, the other group represents all that is bad about college basketball, and in extension, the country as a whole.  Kentucky fans believe UL represents the big city, full of brash, obnoxious fans who would be better placed in Southern Indiana, rather than in the great Commonwealth of Kentucky.  While Louisville sees UK as a fan base full of country hicks, whose country mannerisms embarrass the UL faithful when they travel to other states and say they are from Kentucky.  Being a fan of UL or UK is not simply about representing a program, it’s about representing a way of life, and when you see the 18-22 year olds on the court playing a game, they are actually standing up for values far greater than they could ever know.

This is all of course nonsense.  Those of you from the other 49 unfortunate states would look at all of us in Kentucky and see little difference, but to those of us who call Kentucky home, these distinctions matter.  The hatred is most intense in the city of Louisville, which has become ground zero for UK-UL passion.  With estimates of the number of UK fans in the city ranging from 40-50 percent, all of us are forced to interact with members of the other tribe and on a Rivalry week like this one, it is all we can do to maintain our cool.  Louisville fans do not like their city infested with all these Blue low-class heathens, while Kentucky fans want their general superiority and overall larger fan base accepted in the Commonwealth’s largest city.  It isn’t so much about winning, because we all know our team and fans are better, but it is about not losing, so we don’t have to listen to that obnoxious co-worker, neighbor or radio host crowing about it for the next 365 days.

PITINO/CALIPARI --- While the fans have always had the passion necessary to make the rivalry intense, what has taken the UK-UL game to a new level these last two years was the introduction of two Northeastern Italians, with a dislike for each other that rivals that of any fan.  Rick Pitino was already the epitome of evil to the Big Blue Nation, after committing the mortal sin of leaving UK, bombing with the Boston Celtics and then having the audacity to return to the state and coach the Wildcats’ arch-rivals.  The Benedict Arnold quality is almost unmatched in modern sports.  Would Coach K join the Tarheels?  Joe Torre the Red Sox?  Bear Bryant take his hat to Auburn?  Its unthinkable, but Pitino went to Louisville, showcasing to UK fans that he was never really one of them anyway.

But even with Cat fans hating Pitino, the Cold War didn’t really begin until John Calipari found his way to Lexington.  The slick former Memphis Coach gave Card fans their perfect UK foil.  For a program that has a history of NCAA violations, hiring the modern Coach most associated with walking the NCAA tightrope was exactly what UL fans needed for ammunition.  The cheating school hires the cheating Coach, allowing the Card faithful to crow that while they do it the “right way”, there is a rogue problem in Lexington.

The best part is that these two coaches seem to be obsessed with each other as much as the fans.    John Calipari openly takes slight shots at Pitino, making comments on his weak non-conference scheduling and referring to the “school down the road.”  Pitino for his part can barely hide his contempt for Calipari, deflecting all questions about him in a “please don’t bother me with THAT guy” type of manner.  Each has given the other fan base something to focus upon, whether it is Calipari and his vacated Final Four trips or Pitino and his infamous night at Porcinis with Karen Sypher.  For every “Derrick Rose” chant, a “15 seconds” one can follow.  And while neither will come from the Coaches themselves, they both probably secretly love every one.

Thus with all of those factors in play, how can the games not be legendary ?  Over the years, stars have been born in the UK-UL game, whose names live forever in the state.  Every UK fan knows about Rex Chapman’s historic Freshman debut to the rivalry in 1986, Cedric Jenkins’s tip-in for the win in 1987 and Patrick Sparks doing his shuffle and drawing a foul to help pull it out in Freedom Hall in 2004.  And UL fans can point to the magic of the Dream Game, Samaki Walker’s Triple-Double or the three from deep that Edgar Sosa drained before the buzzer in 2008.  Legends are made in one afternoon and individuals who otherwise had forgettable careers, like Marvin Stone and Lukask Obrzut are known as Cat and Card killers forever.

The opening line for the game has Louisville favored by two.  And if one looks at the game, a case can be made for either team coming out on top.  But ultimately, the final score is only a small part of what will be the most intense game in college basketball.  In Kentucky, we have little to focus on but college athletics.  There are no Carolina Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes, Charlotte Bobcats or NASCAR headquarters to focus our energy.  Louisville is the largest metropolitan area in America without a pro sports franchise and the energy of the population is focused squarely on college kids playing basketball.  When UK-UL tipoff Friday at noon, the entire state will be holding its breath and focused in a way unrivaled anywhere except in Alabama the day of the Iron Bowl.  Duke and North Carolina are nice and their games are made-for-television theater.  But for unbridled passion and intensity, there is no place in college basketball that can rival gameday when Kentucky plays Louisville .

Photo: AP

Posted on: December 29, 2010 12:13 pm
Edited on: December 29, 2010 12:19 pm

Pitino defends Puerto Rico decision on website

Posted by Matt Norlander

In the past few years, we've seen more and more athletes use their websites as a platform for communicating with not only fans, but also media.

(This is a good and bad thing, but that's another discussion for another time.)

This morning, in a post he titled, "RED ALERT!!!!!" (both I and Elaine Benes endorse his affection for the exclamation point) Louisville coach Rick Pitino used his site (go to the top right to kill that damn autoplay music) as a way to clarify to Cardinals fans and others why he recently accepted the head-coaching job of the Puerto Rico national team.

In doing so, he took a dig at Jeff Goodman at FOXSports.com, a much-needed dose of reality dealt to the national college basketball writer (still love ya, Jeff!) who opined Pitino only took the job to bolster his recruiting classes.

One of our good friends, Jeff Goodman, seems to be confused on why I became the coach of the Puerto Rican National Team. Jeff is a guy most of us in college basketball like and respect, as he provides us with great insight into college basketball. However, because he did not ask me why I took the job prior to posting several of his articles, I will now explain it to the Cardinal nation…
Goodman, a good-hearted master in banter with media members and coaches, immediately returned the jocularity on Twitter.

In the post, Pitino goes on to list the five primary reasons why he's taken on the extra workload. It includes working with close friend and current Cardinals assisant Ralph Willard; less travel (Louisville will now change its offseason foreign trip from Australia to Puerto Rico); the challenge of qualifying for the Olympics; meeting new people and getting new experiences at his age (58); and, yes, the benefit this could bring to recruiting. But he adds:.

This reason is extremely remote as we have already finished recruiting in 2012 and almost done for 2011. ... I just purchased all five levels of RosettaStone.  Also, at my age learning a new language is something special.

Pretty cool that he's taking on learning Spanish and seems to be pretty serious about it. (And a nice little plug there, too.) Good for Pitino to do this, which wasn't really necessary, but as you can see is getting him some added exposure. He's trying to recraft an image and be as transparent as possible in all things with his profession. Smart move.

Photo: Getty Images
Category: NCAAB
Posted on: December 27, 2010 11:01 pm
Edited on: December 27, 2010 11:34 pm

Four takeaways from Monday night

Posted by Matt Jones

The night began with excitement, as two of the top six teams took the court in Pittsburgh for what was supposed to be a glorious start to the college basketball season here on the College Basketball Blog.  Instead, we were treated to old school Big East Basketball at its worst, full of needlessly physical play and game-stifling whistles that make the ultimate product nearly unwatchable.  So rather than wallow in the stench of a game so bad it had me yearning for some Stephen Bardo commentary, let’s look at the five things we learned on an otherwise forgettable Monday night in college basketball:

Indiana Still Stinks

If you had the misfortune of listening to an Indiana fan talk over the past few weeks, the same refrain could be heard over and over.  “We are back!  Crean has the recruits coming in, we are going to make the NCAA Tournament this year and IU is a cool program once again.”  Leaving aside the obvious retort that no program can be “cool” so long as they are wearing those warm-up pants, the 69-60 loss proves that by no means is Indiana “back”, unless “back” means on pace to coast into an NIT berth.  The loss followed a familiar script for Tom Crean’s crew…refuse to guard the outside shot, go through sustained runs in which they are unable to score and then falter in key moments down the stretch.  The fact that it happened at home against a Penn State team without one of its top players makes the loss all the more egregious.  The next five games for Indiana are Ohio State, at Minnesota, at Northwestern, Michigan and at Wisconsin.  How can even the most optimistic Indiana fan look at that stretch and see anything but a 2-3 record at best?  Tom Crean, future recruiting success or not, your seat is officially warm.

Pitt is the Big East Favorite

I expected a lot from the first Big Monday game of the year and actually got very little.  Jay Bilas wasn’t on the broadcast, the referees took over early and turned it into Big East basketball at its eye-bleeding worst and Kemba Walker seems to have trimmed his goatee to a length that makes it slightly less awesome.  So while the night as a whole was disappointing, one thing did become certain.  Pittsburgh is the clear favorite in the Big East.  I questioned UCONN from the outset, mainly because we had seen little out of Calhoun’s club outside of their magical run in Maui.  However I didn’t expect a team that has arguably the Player of the Year thus far in college basketball to look so thoroughly ordinary on the road.  Credit Pittsburgh, who continues to utilize the Jamie Dixon blueprint for success: tough defense, physical around the rim and hit open shots. They do it every year and create boring basketball for the masses, but also victories like the one over UCONN that make its home court the place where Top 5 teams go to die.

Rick Pitino Can Score Quickly

Well actually, we already knew this after the infamous trial last summer, but Pitino is now showing that his renewed energy in coaching has produced a Cardinals’ team that can put big points on the board in a hurry.  The Cards’ 104-74 victory over Morgan State may not seem impressive on the surface, but hidden underneath the final score are some tidbits that should make the country take notice.  While Ricky P has often been thought of as a Coach who likes to have his teams run up and down the floor, that has not been his modus operandi at Louisville.  Pitino has become more of a half-court defensive minded coach in recent years and some versions of Louisville teams over the past five Big East seasons would not have seemed out of place coached by Bob Huggins or Jim Boeheim.   However this group is returning to Pitino’s roots.  The Cards shot 17-23 from behind the three point line against Morgan State and by scoring over 100 points, the team became the first Pitino group to get over 100 in back-to-back games since 1995.  Pitino’s light non-conference schedule means that it remains to be seen how this team will stack up against top competition.  But with a group of Wildcats from Lexington coming to town on Friday, the Cards have served notice that if the three-point shot is falling, they are capable of lighting up the scoreboard quickly.

Ohio State is the Second Best Team in the Land

Beat any team 100-40 and I do not care if it is a bottom feeder from the OVC like Tennessee-Martin, I take notice.  When the year started, we all assumed that the Big Ten team that could compete for a title with Duke would have been Michigan State.  While the jury is still out on what type of team Tom Izzo will bring to March, it is clear that if the tournament started today, the Buckeyes would be the hardest nut for Coach K to crack.  Their lack of a true Point Guard has yet to seem to matter and Jared Sullinger has surpassed the expectations heaped on him preseason and added those dropped by Harrison Barnes for good measure, in order to become the most dominant player in the country up to this point.  When he is playing as well as he has early, it is hard to see very many teams that can match up with the Buckeyes on either end of the court and their potential becomes scary.  Ohio State will be tested in Big Ten play and we will see if teams exploit their propensity to turn the ball over, but for now, Ohio State is the country’s clear #2.

Photo: Getty Images
Posted on: December 21, 2010 9:30 am
Edited on: December 21, 2010 9:41 am

Pitino makes light of all the concussion talk

Posted by Matt Norlander

How about this: The comments Rick Pitino made about concussions is the dumbest thing he's been associated with in a long, long time.

Yes, dumber than the Karen Sypher mess.

Speaking about serious head injuries as if they were the in vogue medical ailment of the modern era — think ADD and ADHD's rise in the past decade — Pitino pontificated in a postgame presser about how we're all just a little too trigger-happy to diagnose our athletes with these silly concussions.

"It's the 17th concussion we've had this year," Pitino condescendingly told reporters a few days ago. (Was that supposed to be a shot at the team trainer?)

After Louisville defeated Gardner-Webb 78-49 Saturday afternoon, the Louisville coach was in good spirits and bantering with the press. (This just days after not being like that , at all, following the Cardinals' loss to Drexel.) Hey, maybe it was the comfort of landing the job coaching the Puerto Rico national team; maybe it was something else. Either way, Pitino got ignorant on us in a quick moment when he challenged old-school, incorrect thinking re: the potential dangers of concussions.

Fast-forward to the 2:45 mark to hear his comments — or the 2:35 mark, if you'd like to hear him make a Kenny Loggins joke. Yes, anything was fair game for Pitino on this night. He certainly did go into a ... danger zone ... on this topic.

"I've been coaching now 35 years. I've seen maybe five concussions in 35 years," he said. "The new thing is everybody has a concussion. If you walk out and slightly brush the door, you have a concussion. That's the way it is today. Everybody has a concussion today. [Elijah Justice] had concussion. [Pitino laughs, followed by inaudible question from reporter]. Yes, barring the fact if he doesn't walk into the door at Benardi Hall and get another concussion."

You can tell Pitino was just waiting for that question about Elijah Justice's head condition. To make light of it sends a terrible message, one that, if I was a parent, would be a huge turn-off if Pitino happened to be recruiting my son. In football, where the issue has reached the daily mainstream conversation, more and more people are becoming educated on the subject and embracing all precaution that must be taken following a thwack or thump to the dome.

But in basketball, it seems some have ways to go. The NCAA has a two-page check-off sheet of sorts to help coaches with identifying concussions, but this is clearly not enough. The sport could be more susceptible to negligence in this regard because coaches and players haven't had this issue (ironically) beaten into their heads enough yet.

They'll get there eventually, though. Comments like Pitino's only show the process as slower than we'd hope for it to be.

(H/T, ESPN CBB Nation )

Category: NCAAB
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