Louisville’s Kyle Kuric celebrates his team’s win over Florida on Saturday. The fourth-seeded Cardinals are the West regional champions.
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One game of the Final Four is a grudge match between teams that know each other all too well.
Kentucky will play Louisville in an intrastate rivalry that puts Cardinals coach Rick Pitino against the school he once coached, then later alienated by returning to the Bluegrass to lead its archrival.
The winner will play for the national title April 2 against either Ohio State or Kansas.
Kentucky already has seven national titles but none since 1998, the year after Pitino left. Kansas has three championships. Louisville has two.
Absent from this year’s ultimate hoops weekend, taking place at the Superdome in New Orleans, are the longshots and little guys who have made March Madness so special over the years.
Although there are no Butlers or VCUs, there are plenty of good stories to tell. That list starts with Pitino vs. his old school.
It was Pitino who restored Kentucky to its former greatness when he arrived in 1989 and the Wildcat program was coming off the sting of NCAA violations.
Pitino took the program to three Final Fours and won one championship, but left in 1997 to take a second shot at the NBA, where he had previously tried and failed with the New York Knicks.
He didn’t fare much better in four seasons with the Boston Celtics, and when the call back to the college game came, it came from Louisville, located only 70 miles up the road from Lexington and very much in the crosshairs of Kentucky fans.
It has been 11 years since his dramatic return, and most of the shock has worn off from what was once deemed an unforgivable betrayal.
There’s nothing like a Final Four meeting to stir up some old memories.
“It is in our state. They’re a great program. We’re in two different leagues,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said after the Wildcats beat Baylor 82-70 in the South Regional to advance to the Final Four for the second straight year.
“The city of Louisville drives our state. The University of Louisville drives that city. So it’s a very important thing for our state, and it’s important that that school does well.”
Maybe just not next Saturday.
The teams play every season, and most recently, they were ranked Nos. 3 and 4 in the Associated Press poll when they met on New Year’s Eve.
Kentucky won at home 69-62.
“We think they’re excellent. We think they’re great. I coached there. It’s great. Great tradition,” Pitino said Saturday, after Louisville rallied for a 72-68 win over Florida that put the Cardinals in the Final Four for the second time since the coach arrived.
“But we want to be Louisville. We have a different mission. They have a different mission. But we both want to get to a Final Four and win a championship.”
Led by a group of freshmen who may or may not return for a second year, Kentucky was established as an early 7.5-point favorite in the game.
The Wildcats endured a brief scare when freshman Anthony Davis, their leading scorer, went down hard in the second half against Baylor with an injured knee. It was only a knee-to-knee collision with a Baylor player, and the injury isn’t expected to be serious.
“The guys told me it was knee to knee,” Calipari said of the early report from the trainers. “I said, ‘Get up, mama’s boy,’ and he was fine.”
Pitino’s team does not have as many NBA-ready stars as Calipari’s, but they are Final Four material. A series of injuries and starts and stops led to a 10-8 Big East regular season that impressed no one. The coach kept believing and coaxing.
The Cardinals won the Big East tournament and are two wins away from winning the NCAAs, too.
“I really didn’t have any lofty expectations, because we had so many injuries,” Pitino said. “We were just trying to survive during the season. We just wanted to make the tournament and start fresh.”