LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — The motivation for Louisville and Kentucky to win Friday's openers of the NCAA regional goes beyond starting the postseason strong.
If the top-seeded Cardinals (45-15) beat No. 4 seed Kent State (36-21) and the Wildcats (35-23) top Kansas (34-24) in a matchup of Nos. 2-3 seeds on Friday, a first-ever NCAA tournament meeting between the in-state rivals looms Saturday. Though nowhere close to the fierce basketball rivalry, the showdown is still expected to ignite their fan bases.
"To have two teams, especially in the state, with exceptional years is big," Kentucky catcher Micheal Thomas said Thursday. "It's going to be exciting. The next couple of days are going to be fun for everybody."
Kentucky and Louisville must first win their openers, a priority they say trumps the urge to look ahead. The Cardinals will start ace Kyle Funkhouser against the Golden Flashes in hopes of possibly facing Wildcats lefthander A.J. Reed, a two-way threat and national player of the year candidate.
"We've got people asking questions about possible matchups, (but) there's no guarantee we're playing one of the other two teams on the other side and there's a good chance we won't," said Louisville coach Dan McDonnell, whose team seeks back-to-back College World Series berths.
"Right now, Kent State's the team. They went to Omaha (home of the World Series) a couple of years ago and I don't see a bigger game than that."
The Wildcats swept the regular season series, which didn't include Reed on the mound. Louisville's focus is staying in the winner's bracket in the double-elimination tournament behind sophomore right-hander Funkhouser (12-2, 1.81 ERA), who has won five straight and set a single-season school record for victories.
Kent State counters with lefthander Brian Clark (6-6, 3.78), whose 65 strikeouts rank second on the team. The Golden Flashes have won six straight including four in the Mid-American Conference tournament during which three starters posted ERAs below 1.20.
Kent State has not been an easy out for Louisville: The Cardinals are 14-14 all-time against the Golden Flashes.
"We have nothing to lose, but we have a lot to lose," Kent State coach Jeff Duncan said.
Reed figures to be busy as Kentucky's first baseman and offensive threat along with his mound duties, all of which he has excelled at this season. He enters leading the NCAA with 23 home runs and a .768 slugging percentage, adding 11 wins to earn Southeastern Conference Player of the Year honors on Monday.
Reed's versatility will draw a lot of attention this weekend, but Kentucky's World Series quest begins behind sophomore right-hander Kyle Cody (4-0, five saves). Wildcats coach Gary Henderson said starting Cody was a "no-brainer" decision against Kansas' right-handed lineup, a choice that adds drama to Saturday if Kentucky and Louisville create the milestone matchup many in the Bluegrass State hope for.
"We're assuming that we're playing Louisville, which we probably will at some point in time," Henderson said. "But in all honesty, we gotta win tomorrow."