The upcoming Final Four in New Orleans may be devoid of underdogs, but it will not be lacking in drama and intrigue. The showdown between the Big East Champion Louisville Cardinals, winners of the NCAA tournament’s West Division and the Kentucky Wildcats, winners of the South Division and the nation’s top-ranked team, has all the makings of a tournament classic.
The instate rivals met, famously, in the Elite Eight (regional final) of the 1983 tournament. They had not faced each other in the tournament for 34 years, and had not met in the regular season for more than 60 years. The Wildcats tied the game at the buzzer in regulation, but the Cardinals dominated in overtime to notch an 80-68 victory and advance to the Final Four. Ultimately Louisville lost 94-81 to the top-ranked Houston Cougars (Phi Slama Jama) in the national semifinal, but Jim Valvano’s N.C. State Wolfpack pulled off a surprising 54-52 upset in the finals to claim the tournament title.
The excitement of the head-to-head contest between the Bluegrass state’s top programs led the Kentucky legislature to pass a law requiring the two teams to meet annually.
The teams also had a near miss in the 1975 NCAA tournament. Both teams made it to the Final Four that year. Louisville, coached by former John Wooden assistant Denny Crum, was leading the UCLA Bruins (who had ended their run of seven consecutive titles the year before) 74-73 with 20 seconds remaining in its national semifinal game. There was no shot clock and Louisville’s Terry Howard had possession. Howard, a senior reserve, had not missed a free throw in 28 attempts that season. He was fouled and missed the front end of a one-and-one allowing UCLA to hold for a final shot, a baseline jumper with three seconds to go, to seal a 75-73 win.
Kentucky defeated Syracuse 95-79 in its semifinal game, but fell to UCLA 92-85 in the championship.
The Wildcats have won the last three matchups, including a 69-62 victory in Lexington on New Year’s Eve. Dating back to 1913, Kentucky holds the all-time series edge over Louisville 29-14.
Kentucky’s John Calipari and Louisville’s Rick Pitino have seen better days in their relationship. These days there is a mutual respect, but more rivalry, as should be the case among the top two programs in a state where college hoops reigns supreme.
Calipari played the diplomat this week saying, "I’m going to enjoy this. I’m not worried about who we’re playing. I’m just happy we’re still playing."
For his part, Pitino provided a better dose of reality: "There will be people at Kentucky that will have a nervous breakdown if they lose to us. ... They’ve got to put the fences up on bridges."
Whatever the outcome, Saturday night’s showdown should be one for the ages.
Stay tuned to Big East Coast Bias for coverage of Big East basketball in the 2012 NCAA tournament.