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I don’t enjoy the Kentucky-Louisville game. In fact, in recent years I think it has been fair to say that it comes upon me with a heavy sense of dread. For me, when Kentucky plays Louisville there is simply too much at stake. When I made the fateful decision nine years ago to move to Louisville, a number of things immediately changed. The team that I once considered our greatest rival (Tennessee), the team that I thought had a fanbase that held us in the greatest contempt (Indiana) and the team that I wanted to see lose more than any other (Duke) all went out the window, and those three “traits of hate” combined to form around one school, the Louisville Cardinals. For if you live in the city of Louisville, or find yourself in a circumstance in life where you must deal with their fans on a consistent basis, the UK/UL rivalry can become a bit overwhelming. As with Auburn/Alabama football (the only rivalry in the same league), obsession over this game and this series in the city of Louisville is a 365 day, all-encompassing affair that dominates the entirety of sports conversation no matter the setting or forum (this is especially true if you happen to host a daily sports radio talk show in said city as well). It so drives the yearly city chatter, that when the day of the game finally arrives and the two teams actually hit the court, it can almost seem like too much is at stake. All this talk, all this hype, all this anticipation…and in two hours it is over. It is slightly overwhelming.
Thus while I get virtually no joy out of the actual game itself, when it is over and Kentucky comes out on top, the sense of relief/elation after a win is exhilarating. At no time during the regular season series between the schools was this more true than yesterday. While the stakes were not quite the same as the 2012 Final Four or the 2014 Sweet 16 (when the two teams probably should be separated from having to play each other by state, or if necessary federal, law), for Kentucky fans it may have been the most “at risk” game of the regular season series in a generation. Kentucky is a team on a crash course with history. The question is not “if” this team is great…we know it is…the question is only how great and if it can have a historic regular season. No Big 5 Conference team since 1976 Indiana has ever gone undefeated in the regular season and only four (Larry Bird’s Indiana State, the UNLV juggernaut, Jameer Nelson’s St. Joseph’s team and Wichita State last year) have done it period that timeframe. And this Kentucky team’s most difficult obstacle on the path to that accomplishment was its in-state rival. To lose that game, in those circumstances, would be particularly brutal, especially because of the satisfaction it would give to the fan base of #L1C4. As is often the case for the favorite in this rivalry, the pain of a loss would have exceeded the joy of a win, and much of BBN felt the weight of that expectation.
But once the clock struck 4:20 on Saturday, more than just Darnell Dodson were thrilled, as the Cats got a victory that now turns the hype machine up another notch in the march towards history. The game wasn’t a thing of beauty, but it gave us two memories that will be a part of this rivalry forever. Tyler Ulis first gathered our attention with the stream of blood running down his face, but then followed it with 14 critical points and a domination of the game in the second half. Louisville then gave us a tremendous gift with the Chris Jones’s Flop for the Ages, that made him the internet’s whipping boy of the day. Both of these will join the Cedric Jenkins tip, Rex flying through the air, DA’s dunks, Patrick Sparks’s shuffle, Boogie’s elbow, Aaron’s three and many more images as moments that will be a part of our UK-UL memory bank. Kentucky legends are made in this series and what we saw Tyler Ulis do, after taking a shot to the eye that wouldn’t seem to fully heal (his bandage grew larger each timeout and he ended with three stitches after the game), will forever make him a household name in the Bluegrass state. His two threes were the moments that extended the lead and gave the separation that Kentucky needed to hold on to its victory. The Jones flop was a golden gift for the internet age and spawned countless bad jokes (of which I participated), gifs and re-enactments that will be with us for years to come, especially as the UL fan base falls farther and farther out of love with him. These moments, combined with the sight of a withered Pitino, sad Jennifer Lawrence, staring Willie and swaggy Calipari guarantee that UK’s second victory in three tries versus the Cards in the Yum Center will always be remembered fondly.
What happens next still remains to be seen. Conference play has no obvious challenger, but I do agree with many of the pundits that Kentucky will have a couple of road games in the SEC that will be closer than people predict and could lead to at least one defeat. Florida, LSU, Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia are not a murderer’s row of difficulty but at least one will come on a ridiculously hot shooting night and may require UK to play “crunch time” minutes at least once before postseason play begins. The ride through the SEC will be beset with contrived media controversies (the Calipari haters are already aggressively promoting an unnecessary Andrew vs Ulis debate), uninspiring halves (a Buffalo or Columbia home clunker will surely arise) and unparalleled hype from media ready to ride the “Undefeated” train to its final moment. Kentucky will almost certainly finish the journey as the overwhelming favorite to win the 9th Championship and could potentially be in a “Greatest of All Time” debate. With only the Match Game-esque “HOW GREAT ARE THEY” question remaining, it should actually be one of the more fun trips through the SEC conference schedule in UK history.
But before we head down that road with the start of “Camp Cal” on Monday, take a minute to savor what just happened. This may have been the best non-conference season that Kentucky basketball has ever played. The Cats beat historic powers by historic margins, defeating Kansas, UCLA and North Carolina by a combined 87 points. They took down the #4,5 and 6 ranked teams convincingly, leaving no doubt in any of the games, which was the better team. They won games by nearly unprecedented margins, finishing only one in single digits. And they played defense on a historically great pace, crushing school and national records in the process. And oh yeah…they beat our biggest rival for the 7th time in the last 8 tries, on their home floor, playing their preferred style, at the tail end of their best run in their program’s history and they did it with room to spare. Even if the game itself arrived with a slight sense of dread, it ended with yet another example of the conclusion that has been reinforced every day since John Calipari arrived in Lexington. For as long as he is roaming the sidelines, Kentucky is college basketball, its biggest star, its most visible program, its proverbial elephant in the room and this year at least, its undoubtedly best team. This group clearly has the heart AND the hype.
(Photo by Jamie Rhodes…USA Today Sports