Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

December 29, 2012

Bluegrass battle

UK-Louisville game has state’s attention

Mark Maynard
The Independent

ASHLAND — New Year’s Eve may be Monday night but in these parts, and all the rest of Kentucky for that matter, the real ball drop is today in Louisville.

It may not be a state holiday (yet) but the renewal of the Kentucky-Louisville basketball rivalry has few rivals when it comes to getting our collective attention.

Our entire state will pause today at 4 p.m. — most of us with eyes fixed on the television sets —when the Wildcats and Cardinals tip it off.

Whether you’re fortunate enough to have a ticket for today’s affair at the KFC Yum Center or, like most of the state, be glued to the television set, it has certainly become the place to be around New Year’s Eve weekend.

New Year’s Eve party planning will be put on hold as will almost everything else for this basketball game. After all, this rivalry (usually) only comes around once a year.

Since John Calipari became Kentucky’s coach, the rivalry has been decidedly blue-tinted. His perceived rivalry with Rick Pitino has also elevated this game to Super Status when it comes to discussing today’s greatest sports rivalries.

Personally, I think it has surpassed Duke-North Carolina — and that’s saying a lot — even among the national pundits (not all, but most), at least when it comes to college basketball.

The natural drama of John Calipari vs. Rick Pitino just plays out perfectly for the national television audience.

It may have reached the zenith back in March when the two powerhouses met in the Final Four for the first time. Kentucky famously won that all-important war and eventually secured its eighth national championship.

Imagine the pain it would have caused most of Kentucky (at least those outside of Louisville)  had the Cardinals beaten the Wildcats in that Super Bowl-like showdown in New Orleans.

Calipari at UK is 4-0 against Pitino at U of L. Among those victories includes Kentucky’s 69-61 victory in last spring’s Final Four matchup.

Most are figuring that’s going to change today.

I’m not so sure.

Kentucky is so far a very unimpressive 8-3 but the potential is there and we all know it. It’s a matter of time before it all comes together. Could it be today?

Kentucky fans are bracing for the worst but still expecting the best, as they always do. Wildcat fans are the hardest to please, bemoaning every missed shot or free throw, and among the most demanding in college basketball.

Part of the problem with this year’s team is comparing them to last year’s team. That is a bit unfair considering the considerable talent and chemistry of those national champions.

Louisville will be taking aim on a national championship this coming spring so the pressure is mostly on the Cardinals in today’s game with the Cats. That’s a switch and my guess is Kentucky will embrace that for a change.

It’s interesting what got all this Kentucky-Louisville rivalry started in the first place. It was 30 years ago, in the spring of 1983, when the Wildcats and Cardinals met in the NCAA Mideast Region finals in Knoxville.

Our own Jeff Hall of Fairview fame was part of those Cardinals, who defeated Kentucky 80-68 in overtime.

That started the political discussion rolling toward what has become an annual game that fans in the commonwealth look forward to every year.

Until that game, the teams had not played since the 1959 NCAA Tournament. A regular-season UK-U of L game hadn’t happened since 1922.

After the high-profile NCAA tournament battle in 1983, dubbed “The Dream Game,” it was legislated for the game to happen on a regular basis, so it did, and it has been a large part of Kentucky’s fabulous basketball landscape every year since.

It has not only become one of great popularity among Kentucky and Louisville fans but a national television audience as well.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell everybody to tune in today because you’ve probably already planned the party around it.

May you have an exciting Kentucky-Louisville basketball holiday today — and then a Happy New Year on Tuesday!

MARK MAYNARD can be reached at mmaynard@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2648.