Kentucky-Louisville: Where does it rank among rivalries?
The Kentucky-Louisville basketball rivalry reaches its zenith Saturday night in New Orleans, when the teams meet in the Final Four. Let’s see. For a comparison on how big this game is, it’s basically what we thought might happen in football last December: Bedlam as a national semifinal. It looked the Bedlam game could be a winner-advance-to-New Orleans and the Big Bowl. Turns out the Sooners slipped twice, and when OSU slipped once, OU didn’t have the cachet to help the Cowboys recover, so it wasn’t a national semifinal at all.
But Kentucky-Louisville is. And this game is rich in intrigue. Our late sports editor, Bob Colon, didn’t much like drama. He liked people to live orderly lives. At least in the office. When occasional theatrics would ensue, he would label it a “Shakespearan drama.” Well, Kentucky-Louisville is a Shakespearan drama. Hamlet can’t match John Calipari and Rick Pitino.
Let’s see. Pitino is a Kentucky icon, having coached the Wildcats to the 1996 NCAA title and taken UK from the depths of basketball despair after taking over the program in 1990. Trouble is, Pitino now coaches Louisville.
Calipari twice has taken teams (UMass and Memphis) to the Final Four, only to have the trips stricken from the NCAA record book because of various infractions. Louisville-Memphis was a rivalry of some note. Now Calipari combats the Cardinals from an even less endearing platform.
Kentucky-Louisville is a strange rivalry. Revived only in 1983, after a 24-year hiatus. Legendary Kentucky Adolph Rupp declined to play Louisville, apparently hoping to confirm the Cards’ status as an inferior school and basketball program. Alas, Denny Crum turned Louisville into a basketball power. He won NCAA titles in 1980 and 1986; the schools were bracketed together in 1983 and met in the NCAA regional final, with the ‘Ville winning 80-68 in overtime to advance to the Final Four.
That’s how rivalries are made. They are forced upon us by results. Geography makes for good rivalries. Geography plus prowess makes for great rivalries. The Bedlam Series is stronger now that OSU has busted through and won the Big 12 football title. If OSU maintains that kind of contention, the Bedlam will grow even more.
Louisville had good basketball tradition before 1970. The Cardinals made the NCAA Tournament six times and reached the 1959 Final Four. But Crum arrived, and the Cards took off. Louisville now has made 38 NCAAs, fashioned a record of 64-39, reached nine Final Fours and won NCAA titles in 1980 and 1986.
Kentucky’s tradition trumps that, of course. UK has made 53 NCAAs, with a record of 111-47, 15 Final Fours and NCAA titles in 1948, 1949, 1951, 1958, 1978, 1996 and 1998. But Louisville stands tall even against that lofty standard.
The non-conference aspect of the rivalry is interesting, too. I made a quick list of what I consider the best rivalries in college sports:
1. Army-Navy football
2. Auburn-Alabama football
3. Duke-North Carolina basketball
4. Oklahoma-Texas football
5. Michigan-Ohio State football
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