No.4 Louisville and No.8 Kentucky will do battle on Friday night in a Midwest Regional Sweet 16 contest. The matchup, though, is much more than a usual NCAA Tournament game.
Even with no national championship implications, a Louisville-Kentucky game is one of the most intense in college basketball. Separated by just over an hour-long drive, there is no love lost between the in-state rivals.
The Bluegrass rivalry was only intensified in 2009, when John Calipari was named Kentucky’s head coach. At his previous coaching stops, Calipari had what appeared to be a feud with current Louisville head coach Rick Pitino. With Calipari taking over where Pitino left in 1997, Kentucky vs. Louisville reached a new level.
Shortly after taking the job, Calipari said the Wildcats didn’t have much competition in the state. Pitino seemed to take exception to being left out of the discussion.
"Four things I've learned in my 59 years about people," Pitino told CBSSports.com. "I ignore the jealous, I ignore the malicious, I ignore the ignorant and I ignore the paranoid. If the shoe fits anyone, wear it."
Friday night marks the 20th all-time meeting between the coaches. Calipari gained a 10-9 advantage, when Kentucky beat Louisville in December. Pitino is expected to even up the record, as he leads one of the favorites to win the national title. The Cardinals are giving the Wildcats four points.
Pitino and Calipari are two of the best coaches in college basketball, but their rivalry might not mean much if their teams weren’t good. In the past few seasons, few teams have had as much success as the schools from the Bluegrass State. The Wildcats were forced to play in the 2013 NIT, but they won the national championship the year before. Last season was Louisville’s turn, as Pitino won his first title, since he did it with Kentucky 17 years prior.
Even though neither team was named as one of the top seeds, they have proven to be among the best teams in the field. Louisville could have arguably been a No.1 seed, having lost just five games this season. Kentucky had some bad losses, but they might have more pure talent that any team remaining.
Kentucky is led, almost exclusively, by freshmen. With a whole regular season and conference tournament under their belts, the first-year players are finally reaching their potential.
The most significant progression can be seen in Andrew and Aaron Harrison. While the twins came to Lexington as highly touted recruits, they had several ups and downs throughout the season. Recently, though, both players have raised their level of play. In his last four games, Aaron Harrison has scored nearly 19 points per game, which is almost five more than his season’s average. Andrew Harrison was crucial to the team’s upset of Wichita State, scoring 20 points on just nine field goal attempts.
Even with the Harrisons’ improvement, projected top-five pick Julius Randle remains the team’s best player. He’s averaging 14.5 points and 13.5 rebounds in two tournament games.
While Kentucky brings young talent to the table, Louisville is led by experienced veterans. Russ Smith leads the Cardinals, averaging 18.1 points and 4.7 assists per game. As a senior, he might be the most reliable player that is left in the Big Dance. In 2013, he was the top performer for the national champs, and has reached the NCAA Tournament in all four seasons.
Louisville’s second-leading scorer, Montrezl Harrell, is just a sophomore, but he’s more experienced than any player on Kentucky that gets significant minutes. Harrell played in all six of the team’s tournament games last year.
In Kentucky’s 73-66 victory over Louisville in December, four Wildcats scored in double-digits. Smith led Louisville with 19 points, while Harrell took just two shots.
Las Vegas Betting Odds: Louisville favored by four points
Over-Under: 139 points
Start Time: 9:45 PM Eastern Time
TV Channel: CBS