Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

April 5, 2013

KYLE HOBSTETTER: Having dislike, respect for Cards

Kyle Hobstetter
The Independent

ASHLAND — Growing up, and being an avid college basketball fan, there was one school I hated with a passion — Louisville.

And while many in this area hate the Cardinals for Big Blue Nation reasons, I have a completely different reason for my dislike of Louisville.

I was a Cincinnati Bearcat fan for so many years, and those two games played against each other annually brought out the worst in me.

When Louisville hired Rick Pitino in 2001, all I heard that season is how Louisville will rule Conference USA. The Bearcats and Cardinals would alternate winning the conference tournament until the teams left for the Big East.

When the teams parted ways with C-USA, my program had to rebuild after firing long-term coach Bob Huggins. Louisville thrived in the new league under Pitino.

Last season, Cincinnati fought its way to the Big East Tournament championship game under Huggins’ predecessor and long-time Pitino assistant, Mick Cronin.

The Bearcats ran into a Louisville team primed to make a run to the Final Four.

Even in recruiting, it seems like Louisville tries to find a way to outdo the Bearcats.

This season one of the Cardinals’ top players was Chane Behanan. The now-sophomore committed to the Bearcats after his second high school season.

A year later he decommitted and re-opened his recruitment ... and landed at Louisville.

Behanan helped lead the Cardinals to a second Big East Tournament championship and back-to-back Final Fours — and I had choice words for Behanan all season long.  

And while I’ve had some heartbreaking moments in this rivalry, I’ve also had some of my fondest memories as a fan from these games.

In the 2004 series, the teams met in Louisville, and the No. 5-ranked Cardinals hammered the No. 6 Bearcats, 99-63.

The return game, and my first Cincinnati basketball game in person, gave me probably the greatest live moment I’ve had as a fan.

Down 54-52, Cincinnati’s Field Williams pulled off a beautiful pull-up jumper to send the game into overtime, in which the Bearcats won 66-61.

When Williams pulled off that jumper, the crowd went crazy, I went crazy and you could see the Cardinals were done for. The Bearcats topped that performance in the Conference USA Tournament, defeating Louisville 64-62.

In Cronin’s second season with the Bearcats, after finishing his first season 11-19, Cincinnati entered Freedom Hall a 14-point underdog against the Cardinals.

The Bearcats, led by Deonta Vaughn, upset Louisville, 58-57, and Cronin became only the second Pitino assistant to actually beat Pitino.

This game had another underlying effect, because in the midst of a massive rebuilding, this win gave a lot of Bearcat fans hope that Cronin was the right man for the job.

Hopefully Cronin and the Bearcats can reach the levels that Louisville has under Pitino — especially the two straight Final Fours.

When coming up with an idea for a Final Four column, though, something really surprising came to my mind.

While I have always disliked Louisville, Rick Pitino, Francisco Garcia, Scott Padgett, Russ Smith, Freedom Hall and “Colonel Sanders Arena,” I’ve realized that there is no other program I respect than the one in Louisville.

My respect for the program increased after the unfortunate accident to Kevin Ware and how his teammates were there for him following the horrific injury.

But while everyone has seen the picture of Ware on a stretcher with his hands outstretched holding onto his teammates, there was another picture that was more profound in my opinion.

The picture is of Pitino, who seems like he only shows emotion when he’s upset or angry, wiping tears from his eyes after checking on Ware and his players.

In fact, Pitino told reporters Ware didn’t know the extent of the injury until he looked at Pitino’s eyes. Ware then responded the way Pitino probably would respond — “Just win, I'll be fine."

The Cardinals ended up defeating Duke on its way to the Final Four, and Pitino was beside Ware the next day after surgery.

In his hands were the regional championship trophy and a Final Four T-Shirt for Ware.

“It brought tears to my eyes,” Ware told reporters on Wednesday. "It was one of the greatest moments of my life."

Sometimes we remind ourselves this is only a game. But for these kids it has become more than a game — more than win or lose — it becomes their lives.

Louisville has not only become the odds-on favorite to win the NCAA championship, but has become the emotional favorite as well.

The Cardinals have become my emotional favorite this postseason, too. It’s hard to fight against a team who seems to do it all right.

Four-year players, a Hall-of-Fame coach who cares, kids caring not only for the game but for one another ... Louisville is a perfect example of what a college basketball program should be about.

I may have hated the Cardinals growing up, but now I have more respect for it than I could have imagined as a high school kid in his Cincinnati shirt.

The only thing I would change is that Cincinnati and Louisville continue playing after the 2014 season, when the Cardinals plan to leave “The Unnamed old Big East Conference,” and join the Atlantic Coast Conference.

If Cincinnati is smart, the Bearcats won’t let this resume-building, rivalry game get away.

KYLE HOBSTETTER can be reached at khobstetter@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2658.