LEXINGTON, Ky. — Without even trying, Louisville is adding to Kentucky’s misery.
While the defending national champions are left to clean out their lockers after being stunned in the first round of the NIT — yes, the NIT — the Cardinals rolled into Rupp Arena on Wednesday for the NCAA tournament.
As the overall No. 1 seed, no less.
“You know how last year they said they hoped we’d win after they lost? UK fans don’t hope they win,” Kentucky fan Roby Thompson said, glumly, as he watched the Cardinals practice. “I don’t even hope they have a good practice today, to tell you the truth.”
The irony isn’t lost on anyone.
A year after the bitter Louisville-Kentucky rivalry took center stage at the Final Four, the Cardinals (29-5) begin their quest for a title in enemy territory today. They face North Carolina A&T in the Midwest Region.
“Personally, I’m just happy not to play Kentucky here because I haven’t had a great success playing against Kentucky at Kentucky,” Peyton Siva said. “It feels good to have the No. 1 overall seed, and to play in a closer location for so our fans get a chance to watch us. We look forward to going out there and playing as hard as we would on any other court.
“We can play at the YMCA,” Siva added, “and I guarantee you coach Pitino will still have us pressing full court.”
The rivalry between Kentucky and Louisville is college basketball’s equivalent of a civil war. Only 70 miles separate the two schools, but they may as well be worlds apart for their pedigrees and locales. Kentucky is the winningest program in NCAA history, and its eight national titles second only to UCLA. Even with two national titles, Louisville will never be mistaken for a true hoops blue blood.
Kentucky’s campus is in the picturesque hill country, while Louisville sprawls across several blocks downtown.
Oh, basketball purists may claim Duke-North Carolina is more intense and has a far richer history. But it didn’t take government intervention to get the Tar Heels and Blue Devils to schedule each other, as it did with Louisville and Kentucky. Think Yankees-Red Sox on the hardwood, and that’s more like it.
As if it needed any more fuel, the rivalry grew more heated last season with the rumble in the Final Four. As everyone in the state knows, Kentucky won and then went on to win the national title, giving Big Blue carte blanche to gloat over its neighbors for the next year.
But Louisville is now exacting its revenge.
Young and undisciplined, Kentucky struggled all season. Needing a late surge to have a chance at defending its title, the Wildcats instead dropped six of their last 10 games. None was more shocking than Wednesday night’s loss at Robert Morris in the NIT.
Louisville, meanwhile, has recovered from its mid-season blip and comes into the tournament as one of the hottest teams. The Cardinals have won 10 straight, and their 78-61 thrashing of Syracuse in the Big East tournament finale was so impressive the NCAA selection committee made Louisville the No. 1 seed ahead of Indiana or Gonzaga.
“Sometimes fans really think that it’s like a huge, hated rivalry. It’s not quite like that with the players, I don’t think,” Louisville’s Luke Hancock said. “We really want to win when we play Kentucky, especially at Kentucky, but we don’t wish them to have a bad season or anything like that or not be here.”
This isn’t the first time the rivals have played on the other’s home court in the NCAA tournament. In fact, Kentucky’s title run last year began in Louisville, where Wildcat fans turned up in such large numbers the KFC Yum! Center may as well have been Rupp West.
But Louisville was still playing while the Wildcats were making themselves at home on the Cardinals’ home court. Kentucky won’t have such a distraction this weekend.
The Cardinals took great pains not to gloat Wednesday, saying they were happy to be at Rupp only because it would make it easier for their fans to see them. Playing in the West Bracket last year, Louisville was sent to Portland and Phoenix the first two weekends.
The Cardinals were greeted with cheers when they appeared for Wednesday’s open practice, and heard nary a boo. Granted, most of the fans wore red, but at least one Kentucky fan applauded when they took the court.
“I just don’t have the personality to revel in anybody else’s failure,” said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who counts as somewhat of an expert on the rivalry after his eight years — and one title — at Kentucky. “They won a championship last year. They had one of the best teams we’ve gone against. So they’re rebuilding, and to me it’s not about them failing and us moving on.”
Besides, where the Cardinals play this week isn’t as important as where they want to be playing next weekend. And the weekend after that.
“I’m very, very proud of this place. I had eight years where I really didn’t have a bad day here,” Pitino said. “So it wouldn’t be that rewarding winning here. What would be rewarding is the fact we would get to Indianapolis.”