In an age where rivalry has become synonymous with in-state bragging rights, rich multi-sport history, or just pure, unadulterated hate, Louisville/Marquette doesn't seem to make much sense.
The universities - one a Jesuit school in the Midwest and the other a Southern state school - are separated by 400 miles. They began playing each other in 1951, but both have multiple series with other programs that date back even further. Each program already has an established in-state rival (Kentucky and Wisconsin), and a secondary conference rival (Cincinnati and Notre Dame).
So why are we talking about this? Why is Thursday's game anything other than a big conference matchup between two talented teams? Why does each program consider the other a rival?
Quite simply, they don't really have a choice.
Louisville/Marquette isn't a rivalry built out of necessity, but rather unavoidability. When two high-profile programs from the same conference play memorable game after memorable game for a prolonged period of time it automatically becomes something much more than it was before, whether the parties involved like it or not.
This has quickly become one of those situations.
Louisville and Marquette are two of just 37 programs to taste the sweet joy of a Division I college basketball national championship. Al McGuire took MU to the promised land in 1977, while Denny Crum made U of L the "Team of the '80s," and captured national titles in both 1980 and 1986. The two have maintained their relevance since then by advancing to a Final Four in the last five years, making the move together to perhaps the most prominent college basketball conference in the country, and by producing successful NBA talent.
And then there are the games, the undeniable backbone of the rivalry. A Cardinal or Golden Eagle fan can describe nearly every recent contest the two have played with a single name: Deane, Wardle, Myles, Hutchins, Gaines, Garcia, Smith. It's a testament to just how competitive the two programs have been in the last 12 years or so.
Because the rivalry's foundation was built with competitive games and not cultural differences or bad blood, it's interesting to see how that affects the fans of the programs. Some - like C-J fan blogger Tom Heiser - will use the word "hate" when describing their feelings toward Marquette just as quickly as they would if asked about Kentucky or Cincinnati or Memphis. Others - like myself - view the Golden Eagles as merely a successful fellow-Big East program that we've had our fair share of dramatic history with.
I'm not implying that Marquette is just another game, I'm just saying that when the Golden Eagles knock off the Cardinals I don't feel near the mixture of negative emotions towards the victors (sans Crean) as I do when the Cats claim the Battle for the Bluegrass, or as I did when the mid-'90s Huggins-led Bearcats would come into the Hall and roll. I don't have a family member who pulls for Marquette, I don't openly root against the Golden Eagles when they're playing someone else, and I don't harbor any particular feelings of resentment towards their fans, or - with the extreme exception of Travis Diener - their players.
It's a different sort of rivalry, for me at least, and one that I enjoy. At least until Wesley Matthews drills a 30-footer at the buzzer tomorrow night.