Pinch me; I must be dreaming. The greatest NCAA tournament game — no, in the history of college basketball — will be played on Saturday: Kentucky vs. Louisville in the Final Four.
Being from Kentucky, this is the most important thing to happen to our state ever. We don’t have professional sports teams, and therefore college athletics are revered in the state. In Kentucky, it is acceptable to check “Basketball” as a religious affiliation.
For those do that don’t understand the magnitude of this game, think of Duke vs. North Carolina in basketball or Ohio State vs. Michigan in football. That’s how important this game is.
However, this is even better than those any of those rivalries. Why? Simple. Pure hatred and passion from both fan bases that Duke and North Carolina only wish they could match.
Louisville has always been a popular team, the most profitable college sport program in the nation. Names like Wes Unseld, Darrell Griffith and “Nervous” Pervis Ellison are just some of the great players that Louisville has produced.
Their fan base is filled with rabid, crazy, always-trying-to-prove-they-are-just-as-good-as-Kentucky’s-fans crusaders. Louisville has won two national championships under then-Head Coach Denny Crum and always has been a hard-fighting scrappy team.
Louisville is now coached by Rick Pitino. Pitino was Kentucky’s head coach from 1989-1997. His name is either loved by Louisville fans or reviled by Kentucky fans.
Pitino is a great coach, taking teams to the Final Four in four different decades, and he is one of only two coaches to take three teams to the Final Four.
The other coach — the man he will be facing — is John Calipari (although two of those teams had to vacate their appearance in the Final Four due to NCAA violations). Pitino and Calipari have a longstanding rivalry and hatred for one another, going back to when both of them coached in the NBA.
Kentucky is “The Roman Empire of College Basketball.” Kentucky has some of the best talents and the most passionate fan base in college basketball. Where else would you find fans that have season tickets for more than 60 years? Where else would you find people who give up half of their salaries working in the coal fields of Kentucky just to see basketball? Nowhere else but Kentucky.
Big Blue Nation has some of the craziest and loudest fans who will go anywhere just to see their Wildcats play basketball. Also, Kentucky has become a home of celebrity sightings at Rupp Arena. Some notable celebrities are Ashley Judd (Kentucky’s number one celebrity fan), Lebron James and Drake.
In only three years, Calipari took Kentucky from near utter oblivion under Billy Gillispie and transformed it into its former glory.
Calipari has never lost a home game since his arrival to Kentucky and has taken three teams to the Final Four, but has never been truly recognized for his coaching ability.
Calipari is a master recruiter, having seven first-round NBA picks in the past two years, and he has turned average players like DeAndre Liggins and Josh Harrellson into NBA-quality talent.
The Kentucky legislature passed a law requiring the two teams to play each other on New Year’s Eve (that actually is a Kentucky state law). Since 1983, Kentucky and Louisville have played each other once a year. Kentucky holds the series record 20-11. Duke and North Carolina play three times a year, which really loses the luster of their rivalry. I think this time they will likely shut down the state and require every citizen in the state to attend the game.
It is rare that Louisville and Kentucky play twice in one year. The past five years of the rivalry have been some of the most entertaining games in college basketball.
In 2008, Louisville’s Edgar Sosa hit a game-winning three pointer at the buzzer. In 2009, a fight broke out between Kentucky’s DeMarcus Cousins and Louisville’s Jared Swopshire only two minutes into the game.
In 2010, Josh Harrellson put his name in Kentucky history books by scoring 24 points and 14 rebounds in that game. He was only averaging 4 points and 4 rebounds per game at that point.
In 2011, Kentucky and Louisville fought a slugfest , marking the amazing individual performances of Kentucky’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who scored 24 points and collected 19 rebounds, and Louisville’s Russ Smith, who scored 30 points with 8 points in the final 12 seconds. Now it will be the first and most important matchup of 2012 for both teams.
Kentucky has one of the most talented teams in the country. All of the starters have the potential to be selected in the first round of the NBA draft. Anthony Davis is a literal freak of nature. The biggest question mark for Kentucky will be the play of freshman point guard Marquis Teague.
Louisville is also very talented. They will apply full-court pressure, which is frustrating for any team. They are ultra-aggressive and will attempt to make Kentucky’s life miserable the entire game. Peyton Siva is playing some of the best basketball of his life and is one of the best passers in the country. Another key for Louisville is Gorgui Dieng, whose shot-blocking ability is only matched by Anthony Davis.
The game will be amazing. If Kentucky wins, they will have beaten one of their fiercest rivals to get to the National Championship.
If Louisvillle wins, there might be a 51st state, as the rest of Kentucky might secede from Louisville.
All I’m saying is believe the hype, this will be a great game. Sorry for those of you from Ohio or Kansas, but Kentucky is where basketball is king, religion and on the verge of exploding due to the magnitude of this game.