Peyton Siva grew up in Seattle, Wash., more than 2,000 miles from the crazed basketball passion that occupies the state of Kentucky. Until he played in the 2009 Derby Festival Classic All-Star game in Louisville’s Freedom Hall, he had no clue regarding the extreme commitment that separates Louisville fans from Kentucky fans.
“Just seeing half (the crowd) red and half of it blue was like, ‘What is this? Why did all these people come?’” Siva said Thursday at the Superdome as his Louisville squad prepared for the Final Four. “In Seattle, you don’t really see that many fans. But (in Kentucky), anything that involves Cards and Cats, they’re going to be there.
“Now I can go into Wendy’s and there might be someone working there who’s a big Cats fan. ‘Oh man, did you see that big Cats win the other day?’ And I say, ‘Man, I don’t want to hear that. I just want to get my food.’”
Siva, Louisville’s junior point guard, still marvels at the intense feelings this rivalry produces. Now those Louisville fans wearing red and the Kentucky fans in blue are ready to invade New Orleans for Saturday’s national semifinal game.
This time, the Cardinals (30-9) and Wildcats (36-2) meet with more than state bragging rights on the line. This time, the winner gets a trip to the national championship game Monday night in the Superdome. Kentucky may be the prohibitive favorite to win the NCAA title, but with Siva working his magic the past eight games, no one is counting Louisville out of this semifinal battle.
“This run has been very special to all of us,” said Siva, who has averaged 11.4 points, 4.1 rebounds, 6.4 assists and 1.9 steals in Louisville’s eight postseason games. “We have never been here (Final Four) before, we have never gotten out of the first round before.
“It still hasn’t hit me that we are here. It was tough at mid-season because everyone got hurt. Now everyone is coming together, gaining that confidence and getting healthy at the right time.”
Louisville coach Rick Pitino has been to the Final Four. In fact, he is the first coach to lead three different schools (Providence, Kentucky and Louisville) to the last weekend. So, when Pitino says Siva is one of the five best people he has ever coached, people should listen. When Pitino says Siva is “just like Billy The Kid” Donovan on that 1987 Providence team, people should listen. And when Pitino says he feels like a grandfather watching his grandchildren as the Cardinals enjoy this run, it’s obvious this is something special.
Pitino said it has been “a great time” seeing his players win, smile and enjoy the ride. Siva certainly demonstrated that Thursday with the media, talking about the rivalry, poking fun at himself, and saying he couldn’t wait to have one of those “little doughnuts” that are part of the New Orleans culture.
“Beignets,” he was told.
“Yeah, that’s it,” Siva said.
They are enjoying this because it hasn’t always been such a smooth ride. Siva came in as a McDonald’s All-American who averaged 18.1 points at Franklin High School in Seattle. At Louisville, he has not averaged more than 9.9 points in any season but his 208 assists this season ranks second best for a single season in Louisville history.
Siva sprained an ankle in practice on Nov. 14 and he missed two early regular-season games. That set him back. And his three seasons have featured a constant battle with Pitino as the coach has tried to mold him to fit the Louisville program.
There were times when the two clashed so often it would have seemed impossible that they could ever reach this point together. But they have.
“Coach P is Coach P,” Siva said. “He’s going to yell at you, he’s going to get under your skin. I learned that my freshman year. He’s going to tear you down, you’re going to break down and you’re going to hit that wall. You’ve got to be mentally tough.
“Now, I’m able to take it in stride. Coach may yell at you, curse you, but you learn that he’s coaching. You’ve got to take out the way he says it and listen to what he says. I think that has helped me out a lot.”
Siva has strong Christian beliefs and began his press conference Thursday by thanking God for getting Louisville to the Final Four. He wears No. 3 to represent the Holy Trinity and participates in regular Bible study. A former AAU coach has called him a pied piper and his older brother, Michael Siva, compares him to Tim Tebow.
But Saturday, Siva will simply be one of the fiercest competitors on the court. He has learned it is not his job to score. Siva is expected to pass and set up his teammates. He is expected to play tough defense and avoid foul trouble.
He knows if he can accomplish that, he can avoid some of those shouting matches with Pitino.
“I have to stay away from the stupid fouls,” Siva said. “Trying to stay aggressive, move my feet, contain the ball and stay away from those type of fouls. I’ve had to learn to pick my spot, to not go for home runs all the time and just try and hit singles.”
The postseason has been full of home runs for Siva. He was the Most Outstanding Player in the Big East tournament and was named to the West Regional All-Tournament team on the way to the final weekend of the season.
When Kentucky defeated Louisville 69-62 on Dec. 31, Siva was 2-for-13 from the field, had four assists, three turnovers and just eight points. It’s clear things have to be different for Siva on Saturday if the Cardinals want to extend their season one more game.
“They had Marquis Teague on me at the start of the game,” Siva said. “Then he and (Michael) Kidd-Gilchrist kind of switched off. I don’t know what they will try. Coach (John) Calipari has great tactics but I just look forward to running my team.”
And Siva knows the Cardinal faithful are counting on him. The passion and the following no longer surprise him — even when he heard the rivalry got a little heated at a dialysis clinic in Louisville this week. It seems one patient punched the other. And the altercation was between a 68-year-old Kentucky fan and a 71-year-old Louisville fan.
They were arguing about who would win Saturday.
“It’s crazy,” Siva said. “People love their Cards and they love their Cats. I wouldn’t expect a 68-year-old to fight a 71-year-old, but they love their teams.