Louisville coach Rick Pitino knows what Kentucky and Louisville getting together on the court means to fans. He also knows it's never meant more.
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports
INDIANAPOLIS — It’s Kentucky-Louisville, which means it comes with subplots and strong feelings and an extra-large side of hate.
Except this time, it just means one team is moving on and the other is going to have a miserable trip home.
When the in-state rivals meet Friday night at Lucas Oil Stadium in the marquee game of the Midwest Regional doubleheader and maybe the most anticipated NCAA tournament game since they last met two years ago in the Final Four, those involved say the personal stuff will be left for the 30-some thousand in the crowd who have picked a color and a side.
On the floor, it’s the defending champs vs. the 2012 champion, two power programs trying to keep their seasons and championship dreams alive. Even a December meeting in Lexington, won by a young Kentucky team, means little to this one because of the way both teams have changed.
Both really want to have another practice on Saturday and another game Sunday, regardless of what colors their Friday night opponents are wearing.
"It’s a rivalry game; there’s no way around it," Louisville senior guard Russ Smith said. "But at the end of the day…it’s much bigger than a rivalry. It’s a Sweet 16 game. They would have to play with the same enthusiasm and wake up reading the same scouting report as if they were playing a UCLA in the Sweet 16 or UConn.
"You just want to get to the next round, and that’s what’s most important. I feel the same way. I felt the same way the last two, three years, coming into this program, to be prepared for every team the same way. So preparing for Kentucky is really no different. The goal is to get to the Elite Eight."
The rare person who’s been on both sides of this rivalry, Louisville coach Rick Pitino knows what Kentucky and Louisville getting together on the court means to fans. He also knows it’s never meant more.
"I’ve been in the state 20 years, and the game to me has really only had difficult consequences for the loser twice," Pitino said. "Once was two years ago when they stopped our run in the Final Four."
"The next game we play," Pitino said.
Both teams are good enough to keep winning, and both come in playing their best basketball. The No. 4 seed Cardinals forced 33 turnovers in two wins last weekend and have lost just once since Jan. 30 — and only three times since a 73-66 loss at Kentucky in late December. The No. 8 seeded Wildcats ended Wichita State’s unbeaten run last weekend and have won five straight against teams not named Florida.
Kentucky is a young team — five freshmen start — that just might now be starting to get good.
"I’m happy we didn’t run out of road before we got it, or run out of runway before we finally figured it out," Kentucky coach John Calipari said.
Calipari is 5-1 vs. Pitino and Louisville as Kentucky’s head coach, and Calipari said he’s learned that back in Kentucky, "People grieve for a year after the (Louisville-Kentucky) game. People celebrate for a year after the game. I’ve tried to not make it bigger than it is, but it doesn’t work."
So he’s told his players to turn off their Twitter accounts and TV programs talking about the game — "watch the Military Channel, watch movies, don’t read anything," Calipari said — and don’t worry about what beating Louisville again might mean to anyone, anywhere.
He just wants his players to worry about beating the next opponent, period, and that next opponent just happens to be Louisville.
"I have told the team, ‘We will not make this game bigger than it is,’" Calipari said. "It’s an NCAA Tournament game. We’ve got to play a basketball game against a really good team. Every team still standing is playing a really good team. So that’s my message: ‘Don’t make it bigger than it is, just play.’
"This is a different deal. All records — their record, our record against each other, their conference — none of it matters in this game. This is a one-game shot."
Maybe it was an attempt to downplay the turf war stuff that’s going on back on the homefront, or maybe it was just because both were asked specifically about the other during Thursday’s formal press conferences, but both Pitino and Calipari said they consider the other a friend.
"We understand the fans’ intensity, but we don’t personalize our battles," Pitino said. "We understand what it’s all about. The best team is going to win."
Calipari said the two have kept in contact at various points of the season and "the stuff about, ‘Well, they’re at each other’s throats,’ it’s just not accurate. I’d be stunned if he thinks of me in a week. Both of us have tough jobs that we have to be engulfed in what we do."
They’ll shake hands before Friday night’s game, and then again after. One will enjoy that second meeting more than the other. Only then will fans on either side truly exhale.