Louisville coach Rick Pitino knows the Cardinals-Wildcats rivalry well. He coached Kentucky for eight years and is in his 11th year as coach for Louisville. He led the Wildcats to a national title in 1996.
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LEXINGTON, Ky. -- This Bluegrass State rivalry runs deep, and the divide is wide.
Just 70 miles apart, Lexington and Louisville are worlds apart when it comes to college basketball. Come Saturday when the Cardinals and Wildcats meet at the Final Four in New Orleans, a berth in the national title game is just the beginning.
Here, the game is likened to a civil war.
Pick a side: Wildcats or Cardinals. Rupp's Runts or the Doctors of Dunk. Dan Issel or Wes Unseld. John Calipari or Rick Pitino.
"If the excitement and frenzy and turbulence that's been stirred up in Kentucky this week could be harnessed, we could solve our energy crisis," Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor. "Basketball fans from Kentucky have been waiting their whole lives for this game."
This is the grudge match to end them all.
It's the fifth time the schools will meet in the NCAA tournament -- the two sides have split the four previous meetings -- and it pits Louisville coach Pitino against one-time friend and now frosty foe Calipari. Not to mention Kentucky freshmen phenoms Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who have been steady in taking the Wildcats to the top, vs. a ragtag flock of Cardinals who've won eight straight with a rotating cast of mostly unknowns such as Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng.
"It's not about [Pitino] or I; it's about these players," said Calipari, who's in his second consecutive Final Four still searching for the national title that's eluded him. "Hopefully we both have our teams ready to play, and I think we will, and we'll go at it."
The Cardinals (30-9) lost this year's matchup vs. the Wildcats (36-2) 69-62 on Dec. 31. Even though there is much more on the line Saturday, it will be difficult for the game to be much more intense.
Kentucky's Marquis Teague shoots under pressure from Louisville's Gorgui Dieng during the teams' matchup in December. Kentucky edged Louisville 69-62.
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"There's going to be so much pressure on the players," former Louisville forward Earl Clark said. "It's going to go down in history. Kentucky is the No. 1 team, and Louisville is like the Cinderella of the tournament."
Kentucky blue dominates most of the state of more than 4.3 million basketball-crazed fans, surrounding the outnumbered Cardinals fans who have fortified a stronghold in the state's largest city.
The fan bases are about as different as they can be, and Pitino is one of the few who knows what it's like on both sides of the aisle.
He coached Kentucky for eight years, bringing the 'Cats back to the pinnacle of greatness with an NCAA title in '96. He's been at Louisville for the last 11 years and is heading to his second Final Four with the Cardinals.
"It's two different entities, really, it's two rabid fan bases," Pitino said.
That was clear this week when two senior citizens duked it out at a Georgetown dialysis clinic.
A 68-year-old Kentucky fan and 71-year-old Louisville fan were arguing Monday about who will win Saturday's game when the discussion got out of hand. Georgetown police Lt. Robert Swanigan says the Kentucky fan flipped off the Louisville fan, prompting the Cardinals fan to punch him in the face. No charges were filed.
Pitino jokes many marriages in the state fail because they have a Louisville woman marrying a Kentucky man.
Nick Fenton and his wife, Christi, are working through their differences in Louisville. Fenton said they fly a "House Divided" flag in their front yard with the two schools' logos displayed.
"Her family is all Cards fans, so they brainwashed her," said Fenton. "This Final Four game, though, it's going to be pretty wild."
It took the governor to first get the two schools together on an annual basis.
Kentucky never scheduled in-state schools under coach Adolph Rupp, and former assistant Joe B. Hall followed suit when he took over as coach. Gov. John Y. Brown stepped in after their matchup in the 1983 NCAA Mideast Regional finals -- know around the state as The Dream Game. Louisville beat Kentucky in overtime in the teams' first meeting since 1959.
"It created a lot of animosity and strong feelings toward each other, but at the same time I felt like the taxpayers were entitled to see the competition between two of the nation's premier programs," the former governor said. "If you ask either school what the No. 1 game on the schedule both in basketball and football, they'll say it's the rival school.
"They have to live in shame, whichever one loses."
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