In NCAA Tournament, A Kentucky Showdown

"Basketball Armageddon!" "Commonwealth Calamity!" Whatever hyperbole you choose, it probably doesn't describe how much Saturday's Final Four game between Kentucky and Louisville means in Kentucky. Columnists Eric Crawford of the Louisville Courier Journal and John Clay of the Lexington Herald Leader offer their insight on this bitter hoops rivalry.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Finally, this hour, Kentucky is crazy about basketball. OK, that's nothing new. But on Saturday night, Kentuckians will be insane. That's because the University of Kentucky will meet its extremely bitter home state rival, the University of Louisville, in the Final Four of the NCAA tournament. The two teams play every year but never in the Final Four. Well, joining me to talk about the matchup are sports columnists Eric Crawford of the Louisville Courier-Journal and John Clay of the Lexington Herald-Leader. Welcome to you both.

ERIC CRAWFORD: Thanks for having us.

JOHN CLAY: Thanks for having us.

BLOCK: Why did you put this on a cosmic scale? Define this rivalry and what it means for Kentucky basketball fans. Eric, you first.

CRAWFORD: Well, I think, you know, if you look at the front page of The Courier-Journal this morning, there's no other news on it but this game. And I think that for the state, for the next week, this is all there's going to be.

BLOCK: John, what do you think?

CLAY: Oh, yeah, definitely. I think when Kentucky and Louisville met in 1983 in the NCAA tournament was the first time they have played in a while because they did not - at that time, they did not play every year, and people referred to it as the dream game. I think meeting in the Final Four is kind of like the dream game personified.

BLOCK: And, Eric, why do Louisville fans hate Kentucky? What's at the root of that?

CRAWFORD: Well, you know, John referenced it that for years, you know, Kentucky wouldn't play Louisville, and that it wasn't a big deal for a while. But as Louisville got better and better under Coach Denny Crum, they won a national championship, and Kentucky still refused to play them. So I think there's a lot of resentment there. It's pretty deep-seated and more than just at basketball level.

BLOCK: And, John, equal time for you, the other way around, and there's a particular reason that Wildcats fans would really have it in for the Cardinals, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CLAY: Well, of late, the reason they have it in for the Cardinals is their coach, Rick Pitino, who had a fabulous run during his time at Kentucky, brought them back from probation, won the championship in 1996, so that, obviously, adds to it. And then also you had former Kentucky coach Eddie Sutton once referred to Louisville as little brother, and I think Kentucky looks as - that they're the big brother, and Louisville is the little brother. That's always been nipping at their heels, and Louisville sort of resents that characterization as well.

BLOCK: Well, in the game on Saturday, Kentucky is the number one seed; Louisville, a number four. They would be, I guess, the underdog in this matchup. Does it seem like that from where you sit, Eric?

CRAWFORD: Oh, I think very much so. Kentucky has been the best team in the country all year. Kentucky is definitely the favorite.

BLOCK: And, John, does that feel like a comfortable place to be?

CLAY: Well, I mean, yes and no. I mean, Kentucky fans are sort of obsessed with the notion of getting their eighth national championship. And, you know, as I've mentioned earlier, it's a dream game, but it's also kind of a nightmare in the same time. They can't really fathom what it would be like to have Louisville knock them out in the tournament in the Final Four and not get that eighth banner. Not getting it would be bad enough, but to have Louisville knock you out in the Final Four and keep you from it would be something else entirely.

BLOCK: With your former coach leading the way?

CLAY: Absolutely.

BLOCK: You know, I'm trying to imagine how loud the New Orleans Superdome is going to be on Saturday night. I mean, for any Final Four matchup, it would be crazy, but this one in particular has got to be 1 degree or 2 degrees above that.

CRAWFORD: Oh, it certainly does. As soon as Kentucky won its regional championship game, there were firecrackers going on outside my house. So I can only imagine if they get five days in Bourbon Street to prepare for this, what it's going to sound like.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CLAY: Yeah. I think that's the other dynamic. This state is known for basketball, but it's also known for bourbon, its love of bourbon too. So if you take Kentucky fans and Louisville fans together on Bourbon Street and mix in the alcohol component, it's going to be quite a circus to watch even for New Orleans.

BLOCK: Well, John and Eric, have a great time in New Orleans. Thanks for talking to us.

CLAY: Thanks for having me.

CRAWFORD: Thanks. Thanks a lot.

BLOCK: John Clay of the Lexington Herald-Leader and Eric Crawford of the Louisville Courier-Journal.

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