Kentucky, a mere mention of the great Commonwealth is bound to elicit a distinctive response from almost every person one could encounter. To our Southern brethren, we are Yankees and fence straddlers. Venture North and we are viewed as shoeless-overall wearin-cousin loving-hilljacks. If you were to head East, some might even call us Midwesterners. The Commonwealth of Kentucky might struggle in its quest to belong, but it is undisputed without our great state, the country would have collapsed centuries ago.
Daniel Boone and George Rogers Clark carved the frontier of the bluegrass and protected it for decades. Henry Clay sewed the country back together constantly and consistently before the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were both born within our borders, and without such great men leading the tragic conflict known as the Civil War, the United States could have never recovered.
Muhammad Ali became and remains the most recognizable athlete throughout the world. His boxing dominance, unrelenting and undefeated personality, and political beliefs inspired and drastically altered an entire generation. George Clooney and Johnny Depp are two of Hollywood's biggest stars, and last but certainly not least, Jennifer Lawrence has taken the entertainment world by storm with her never ending assault of being a real human being. Jennifer is a Cards fan, Ali is a Cards fan, and if Lincoln were here today, I like to think he would don Cardinal Red with his black top hat.
Kentucky might be a conundrum to the other 49 states of this great country, but those of us lucky enough to live here; we know exactly who we are. Kentucky is bourbon, thoroughbreds, bluegrass, and most importantly, Kentucky is college basketball.
Throughout the homes of most Kentucky residents you will certainly find a family copy of the bible, and a book almost nearly as important recounting the Louisville/Kentucky rivalry that adds another chapter this Friday night. The rivalry between the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky is unparalleled in college sports, unlike any other, a matchup with more history, momentum swings, backstories, and downright distain. Fact checkers feel free to verify, but I believe it is the only sports rivalry mandated by state law to occur annually.
Friday will mark the sixth postseason encounter between the two legendary programs, tied for third in most common tournament matchups, and Kentucky possesses a 3-2 advantage in said showdowns. For comparison sake, Duke and North Carolina have never met in the NCAA Tournament. That fact alone signifies an elite rivalry, between elite programs, and is also testament to the selection committee's favorable treatment of other top programs.
With all the history out of the way let us turn our focus to what matters, winning and putting a stop to this two week resurrection of Kentucky's feeble season. The Cardinals are the better team, the more deserving team, a group to admire, cherish and enjoy. The Wildcats have momentarily wiped away the negativity and disappointment that this season had brought their fans, but fate has a way of smiling at us all, and it now seems appropriate that the only way UK should end their season is at the hands of their much envied and contrasted rivals.
One need not be Rick Pitino or Denny Crum to discover or understand how the Cardinals will defeat Kentucky. It is the tall against the small, the heart and overachiever against the adorned and worshipped, it is a matchup of Hall of Fame coaching against helter skelter whistle chasers. The Cardinals are Vegas favorites, but according to the media, the fans and talking heads, Louisville is facing quite a daunting task against this new Wildcat bunch.
Simple the Cardinal game plan is. If all five Louisville players crash the defensive glass and limit Kentucky's second chance points, the Cardinals will move on to their fifth Elite 8 in seven seasons. Kentucky doesn't run offensive sets; a complicated offensive strategy is not implemented by Calipari. He simply recruits big and tall athletes, coaches them to drive the lane, throw the ball up around the rim, chase a ref's whistle and or crash the offensive glass to get as many shot attempts as possible. Offensive rebounds are often a key indicator of the winning team in any basketball game. Against Kentucky, offensive rebounds are either the nail in your coffin or the obvious secret to success.
Van Treese is back home and the "Steves" will be needed more than ever. Harrell must showcase his recent dominance and continue to impress in his improvement. Mangok has to offer serviceable minutes and avoid senseless fouls. It is a necessity that Wayne continues to offer defensive toughness, rebounding prowess and an absence of phantom fouls. Luke will have to outsmart everyone on the floor and battle underneath the way Kyle Kuric never could.
In the rankings of importance, rebounding occupies spots 1-10, Louisville doesn't win without holding its own on the glass. After rebounding comes the other Louisville secret, passing the ball and locating the open man. Kentucky truthfully only plays seven players, and is most comfortable when settling into a half-court defense where constant movement is not required. If Russ Smith, Chris Jones, Terry Rozier, Harrell and Hancock commit completely to rapidly moving the ball, not only will they be effective offensively, but Kentucky will tire and commit constant mistakes brought upon by freshman fatigue.
Louisville vs. Kentucky, a game with only fan implications when played in December now shines as a beacon in March as the premier event of the tournament. Winner goes on as THE national championship favorite, loser goes home to sulk and revel in bitterness for years to come. In 2013 Louisville had to beat the best to win its 3rd National Championship. In 2014, the Cardinals have been disrespected, undervalued and overlooked.
Kentucky is playing like the best team in the country, showcasing the talent we all were told existed back in October. As a Louisville fan I wouldn't have it any other way, to win a championship you have to beat the best, and it's just our luck the best happens to be our greatest rival. Enjoy the trip back down 65 Friday night Kentucky, oh and do us favor before getting on 64, when you reach Louisville make sure the outside lights are on and the doors are locked at 2nd and Main.