Let the smack-talk begin.
On Rivalry Road, it’s not going to get any bigger than Kentucky and Louisville playing in the national semifinals on Saturday. The golden ticket to the finals awaits the winner.
Call it Mardi Blue Gras in New Orleans.
We will all grow tired of the talk about John Calipari and Rick Pitino and their, uh, dislike for each other. This will not be the love-fest of Saturday’s Louisville-Florida game when Pitino (again) got the best of Billy Donovan to reach the Final Four. Pitino speaks glowingly of Donovan, who is like a son to him.
The feelings between Calipari and Pitino are, well, not as nice.
The very idea of Louisville eliminating Kentucky’s run to its eighth national championship probably makes the skin crawl on everybody who considers themselves a member of Big Blue Nation. The very idea of Team Pitino doing the dirty deed would be a living nightmare.
Pitino is still Traitor Rick in the eyes of many UK fans. They were scorned by his decision to take the Louisville job in 2001 (even though the Kentucky job wasn’t open). How quickly, too, they forgot about what Pitino did for Kentucky basketball. Remember, he is the one mostly responsible for turning UK into the Big Blue Monster that you see today.
Calipari has been like a White Knight riding in on his steed to rescue the Wildcats after Billy Gillespie left it pretty much a mess. What Calipari has done is nothing short of amazing. He has now taken Kentucky to back-to-back Final Fours with a one-and-done formula that many outside of Kentucky think is simply wrong.
But there’s nothing wrong with winning and advancing, and Calipari has done it better than anybody else. What he hasn’t done, in his coaching career, is win the national championship. He will be shooting for that elusive first title starting Saturday. How ironic the first step comes against Pitino and Louisville.
It will be interesting to watch how the state — our area included — reacts to this matchup. Kentucky defeated Louisville 69-62 on Dec. 31. That almost seems like an entire season ago and frankly doesn’t matter much today. But you will hear about it just the same.
While most bleed blue in northeastern Kentucky, there is a good faction of Louisville fans here as well.
Some of them date back to the days when Jeff Hall roamed the backcourt for Louisville from 1983 to 1986. Westwood’s favorite son was loyal to the Cardinals when he was being recruited out of Fairview High School. He was approached late in the process by Kentucky’s Joe B. Hall but stuck with Denny Crum and the Cardinals. It turned out to be a terrific move for Hall, who played in Final Fours in 1983 and 1986 when he was the starting guard on the national champions.
Hall played in the “Dream Game” in 1983 during the Mideast Region championship game in Knoxville when the Cardinals defeated Kentucky in overtime and advanced to play Houston in the Final Four. Out of the “Dream Game” was born the regular-season series (with a nudge from the governor) that is one of the best rivalries in college basketball today.
Louisville became a local favorite when Hall played, with one of the area radio stations even picking up the games. Whenever the Cardinals were on television, which was often, fans tuned in to watch the former Fairview star shoot jumpers from deep in the corners. Everybody was proud of Jeff Hall’s role at Louisville.
Hall, of course, came back to Ashland to coach the Tomcats and Rose Hill Christian to 16th Region championships. His wife, Terri, who he met at Louisville, is a former Cardinal cheerleader. So there’s another connection.
You want more? Dr. Glenn Spradlin and his wife, Kelly, were cheerleaders for Louisville, too. Glenn cheered in 1978 and 1979 and Kelly cheered from 1981 to 1983.
Their oldest daughter, Katy, graduated from Louisville and son Paul is going to U of L in the fall. Katy, a real-estate agent in Louisville, is headed to New Orleans this weekend. Glenn and Kelly will be in Louisville at the King of the Bluegrass tennis tournament watching Paul play for Russell or they would be going, too.
Glenn said they get some good-natured jabs from the many UK fans in the area but “nothing intense.”
He texted a fellow dentist, Dr. Mike Christian, who is a diehard Big Blue fan and a national board member for the UK Alumni Association, all weekend.
“We’ve kind of gone back and forth with each other,” Glenn said. “It’s kind of funny.”
Kelly was a senior at Louisville in 1983 when the “Dream Game” was played. She also cheered at the 1983 Final Four when North Carolina State stunned Houston in the championship game. Houston had beaten Louisville in the semifinals.
Glenn was a senior in 1980 — a national championship season for Louisville — but his cheerleading career had already ended.
The Kentucky-Louisville matchup is a win-win for the state, he said, because of the attention it generates.
“When was the last time you had a Final Four with two teams from the same state?” he said. “It’s kind of an oddity.”
It’s an oddity that will make Kentucky the center of the basketball universe this week.
Enjoy the ride.
MARK MAYNARD can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2648.
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