If you believe the opposing coaches (hint: do not), the only ones who are going to be fretting over the outcome of the Kentucky-Louisville game in the NCAA Final Four on Saturday are the fans.
“There will be people at Kentucky that will have a nervous breakdown if they lose to us,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “You've got to watch. They've got to put the fences up on bridges. There will be people consumed by Louisville.”
Bridge-jumpers might be a stretch, but “consumed” by the thought of two rivals meeting on college basketball’s grandest stage? That’s not only accurate, it’s perhaps the perfect description. Never before have we seen the fervor that is building for UK-UofL in New Orleans. Bourbon Street beware.
The coaches, meanwhile, will steadfastly cling to a brave public front, the seasoned politician pandering to the audience of the day.
Rivalry? Who me? No way.
“I don't get into these petty things, Kentucky-Louisville. To me, it's nonsense,” Pitino said, miraculously not bursting into flames. “I never got into the Yankees-Red Sox. I just appreciated being a Yankee fan.”
“They want to make a big deal about the rivalry,” UK’s John Calipari said. “Not at this time of the year. If you win or lose, you're going to feel the same whether it's a team you've played before or one you've never seen in your life, whether it's a team 12 miles from you or a team that's a thousand miles from you. It doesn't matter this time of year. It matters to fans, but we're not worried about that.”
Anybody else smell smoke?
It was Calipari, of course, who created a firestorm last summer with his description of Kentucky as “the Commonwealth’s team.” He noted Michigan had Michigan and Michigan State. North Carolina had the Tar Heels and Duke. Kentucky had only the Cats.
But on the eve of the Final Four, both coaches were scrambling to keep that thorn from branching anew.
“The city of Louisville drives our state. The University of Louisville drives that city,” Calipari said. “So it's a very important thing for our state, and it's important that school does well.”
“We want to be Louisville,” said Pitino, whose previous job as Kentucky coach only stokes the embers. “We have a different mission. They have a different mission. I keep trying to tell our fans, we're not Kentucky, we have no desire to be Kentucky.
“When I was at Kentucky we would never get jealous of Louisville in any way possible,” Pitino added. “We were just appreciative of being in Kentucky.”
And though they apparently don’t exchange Christmas cards, the coaches were quick to heap praise on the other’s program, again akin to a Republican Senator recognizing a distinguished Democratic colleague.
“We think they're excellent, the measuring stick because they're doing so well,” Pitino said. “The way I look at Kentucky and the way I look at their coaching staff, I marvel at excellence. I respect excellence. So I've got great respect for excellence.”
“Louisville is an outstanding team,” Calipari said. “They play hard. They're well coached. It's going to be a hard game for us.”
Neither coach mentioned the other by name, which could explain those Christmas cards never reaching the appointed address.
What is most fascinating about this gamesmanship is that the two coaches have completely opposite reasons for playing the exact same hand.
Louisville has absolutely nothing to lose and can play the Saturday night Final Four game as free and easy as a pick-up game on a weekend night at the outdoor courts. If, and only if, Pitino can keep the notion that his players must beat rival Kentucky out of their minds.
Kentucky, by contrast, has everything to lose. As the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed they are not supposed to lose this event, and certainly not to a lowly No. 4 seeded Louisville that arrived in New Orleans only because of a Florida meltdown. As with his counterpart Pitino, Calipari must keep his players focused on the pure sport of basketball. They have enough on their plate without adding the red and blue feud to the main course.
“They hear everything. They talk to each other. That's just how it is nowadays,” Calipari said. “You hope they understand for us it's about us playing as well as we can. That's all we're trying to do. We're worried about playing basketball.”
That should be no problem for the players. Just don’t let the bridge-jumping fan disrupt your free throw concentration in the closing seconds Saturday night.