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DREAM GAME HEATS UP AGAIN
December 15, 2005

SCS.com Kansas vs. Missouri. Kentucky vs. Indiana. The Big Five. Xavier vs. Cincinnati. Duke vs. North Carolina. All of these rivalries get the blood boiling regionally and pique national interest every year. However, the best college basketball rivalry will play its thirty-seventh edition this Saturday in Rupp Arena at 1:00 PM CST on CBS. Kentucky (6-3) vs. Louisville (6-0) is the best college basketball rivalry in the land, and there are many reasons why this is true.

1. Bad, bad blood. All good rivalries have it, and this one has a 55-gallon drum of it. Adolph Rupp nixed the series with Louisville in the 1960s. Despite new Louisville coach Denny Crum's ploys in the media during the 1970s, the two could not get together. Fate stepped in during the 1983 NCAA Tournament, resulting in a matchup billed as the "Dream Game" in the Mideast Regional in Knoxville, Tennessee. It truly was a dream game as both teams shot blistering percentages from the field (UK: 56%, UL: 64%) and played their guts out. The game went into overtime. However, Louisville scored the first fourteen points in the extra session and won going away, 80-68. The Cards made 30 of their final 36 shots in the game. Let that sink in for a minute. The teams have played every year since that fateful encounter.

Louisville fans see Kentucky fans as arrogant sheep that exude a sense of entitlement. Eddie Sutton, the coach of the Wildcats during the late 1980s, once went so far as to call Louisville "Little Brother." The moniker stuck and still causes most Louisville fans to raise their hackles. In turn, Kentucky fans view Louisville fans as elitist urbanites. Their "big city" attitude and lack of respect for "Big State U" causes UK fans to bristle.

Of course the bitterest blood in recent times has been spilled over Pitino-gate. Current Louisville coach Rick Pitino built scandal-riddled Kentucky into a national power during the 1990s, netting Final Fours in 1993, 1996, and 1997, including a national championship in '96 and another championship game appearance in 1997 (UK lost to Arizona). Pitino arguably wielded more power than anyone in the state. He then rode that titanic wave of success to Boston with heavy-hearted, but mostly well-wishing UK fans in tow.

This turned out to be one of the worst career decisions in recent memory. His stint with the Celtics was an utter disaster. Poor personnel decisions and poor team performance led to his departure in 2000. The most memorable scene from his tenure in Boston was the frank and famous, "Larry Bird is not walking through that door" speech. Pitino left Boston with his tail between his legs and licking his wounds. And what slumbering college hoops power happened to be forcing their aging legendary coach out the door? UK's mortal enemy: Louisville.

Pitino accepted the job with much fanfare. Louisville fans sported "Got Pitino?" shirts. UK fans poured dust on their heads and engaged in marathon weeping-and-gnashing-of-teeth sessions. Cat fans came up with clever nicknames like Traitor Rick, "BeneRick Arnold" and even TCFEBUK ("The Coach Formerly Employed By UK") to avoid even uttering the man's name. Kentucky has struggled early on this season and many fans have openly yearned for the runnin' and gunnin' glory days of Pitino's stacked teams. Imagine Roy Williams coaching Duke or Tommy Amaker coaching North Carolina. It would be utter insanity, a complete stab in the back. That is how many UK fans feel about Pitino. There is bad, bad blood between these two teams - and they like it that way.

2. Like Christmas, it comes once a year. This is no conference home-and-home situation where the loser of the first matchup gets another crack on their home court in a couple of weeks. This is for keeps for an entire year. No future conference matchup and no possible conference tourney game. This is for all of the marbles for a full twelve months. This is what puts UK/UL over Duke/Carolina, which is really the only college hoops rivalry that is in the same league.

People that do not live in Kentucky may not be able to fully understand the importance of this game. About seventy-five percent of Kentucky hoop junkies are UK fans, twenty percent are Louisville fans, two to three percent are Western Kentucky Hilltopper fans (this is where I fit in), and the remaining two percent or so are Murray State, Eastern Kentucky, or Morehead State diehards. As a WKU fan, I think I have a unique perspective because I honestly do not care who wins on Saturday. I can watch the game and observe others' emotions. I cannot possibly communicate how much fun this will be.

3. High Stakes. One or both teams often are ranked in the top ten. This year is no exception as Louisville is a consensus (albeit wildly overrated) top five nationally-ranked team. Kentucky is still ranked, but is in freefall after their 26-point pasting at the hands of Indiana last Saturday. This is usually the top non-conference opponent for both squads, and that is the case again this year.

4. College hoops is the only game in town. Some might argue that Louisville football is on the map, but that is a recent development. Kentucky is the college basketball state. There are no NBA, NFL, MLB, or NHL teams. End of story. Indiana cannot say that. North Carolina not only has many pro franchises, but has Wake Forest and NC State to deal with as well. While Western Kentucky often fields a fine basketball team (this year's edition has the potential to be a good one), they rarely steal national or even state media attention from the two "brand names" in the state. No hoops rivalry means more to any state in the union than the Dream Game.

So what does this mean for this year's game? What makes this thirty-seventh edition worth watching? Answers. And one team, or maybe both, is not going to like them. Louisville would appear to be the better team, carrying a small single digit next to their name and sporting a 6-0 record. However, that unblemished record has come against teams that have a combined record of 11-23. Prairie View and Chicago State are not exactly good measuring sticks for the team both the AP and the USA Today/ESPN poll rank 4th in the land. Furthermore, all of these games have been played in the friendly confines of Freedom Hall in Louisville. So, all that we know about the Cards is that they can beat inferior opponents at home, and even that has been questionable at times. Pitino's crew had to come back late against Richmond to defeat the Spiders, and they also struggled with Arkansas State. The Cards are young, inexperienced, and untested. Normally, that would spell almost certain doom heading into Rupp Arena against perennial SEC juggernaut Kentucky.

But, as Lee Corso would annoyingly say, "not so fast, my friend." The Cats are in disarray. UK center Randolph Morris has been ruled ineligible by the NCAA. Kentucky has already lost three games, including that 26-point walloping at the hands of resurgent Indiana last weekend. They also lost to Iowa in the Guardian's Classic, and they fell in Rupp to surprising North Carolina. Player frustration has leaked into the media. The three seven-footers (Lukasz Orbzut, Shagari Alleyne, and Jared Carter) have looked completely inept against quality competition. Kentucky message boards are in full meltdown mode. This team may not be ready to face a stiff challenge, even against a green, inexperienced, and unchallenged Louisville team.

So, because one team is completely untested and the other is in total chaos, this could be a highly entertaining game even if it is not played at a high level. Maybe Louisville will learn what it's like to play a team that will not finish in the bottom half of the RPI. Maybe Kentucky will put aside their internal squabbles for the greater good of defeating their archenemy. There is potential for just about any outcome this year. Everyone expected a great game last year, and they got it. This year, if Kentucky puts it together and makes some outside shots, they could run the young Cards out of the state. If Louisville's youngsters play with no fear and UK continues to pout, the Cards might lay a whipping on the Cats. If both put it together, it could be a nice game. It truly is a crap shoot.

Earlier, I mentioned that this game is a lot of fun for me as a Western Kentucky Hilltopper fan. I get to watch UK fans nervously run to the restroom frequently before the game. If they get behind, I will listen to them lament Tubby's slow-paced offense and lack of offensive firepower. If they jump on top of Louisville, I will listen to them talk of their Final Four chances and that elusive eighth championship (eye roll). Louisville fans will taunt UK fans about the fact that they indeed have "Got Pitino" and needle them about UK's desire for Pitino's glory years. If Louisville jumps out of the gate quickly, they will hoot and holler about their explosive athleticism and fireball press. If they get down, they will chatter about injuries to Juan Palacios, David Padgett, and how young their team is this year.

In other words, they will do what rivals do. Get in each other's faces when they are winning and make excuses when they are losing. It is the nature of heated rivalries and this one packs more heat than any other. As a hoops fan, I am anxious to see if either of these teams are any good, because neither has impressed me thus far. Dream Game? It could be a nightmare with these at this point in the season. But, no matter how bad they look in December, both teams have coaches that have proven track records in meshing teams together by March. Whether you are a Cat or a Card, or whether you hate both of them, this is the must-see college basketball rivalry.

 > Talk about it in The College Corner...

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