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Tuesday, May 8, 2012
Indiana-Louisville? We'll take it!

By Eamonn Brennan

In an ideal world, Indiana and Kentucky would meet at some point this coming December, preferably in Rupp Arena (but a neutral floor would be fine, too!). We'd get to see two bitter adjacent state rivals square off in a matchup with massive emotional and practical implications, populated with future NBA talent, coached by two of the best in the game.

Of course, ours is not an ideal world. There are reasons -- some of them good, even -- why Kentucky and Indiana won't match up on the floor in 2012-13. But those reasons are about what's good for Kentucky and Indiana specifically, rather than the sport of college basketball generally. That's the biggest drag about all this. The sport deserves this game. We've had it since 1969. Now on the precipice of brilliance, the rivalry dies, and all because of an expanded SEC schedule and some mutual stubbornness and John Calipari's "protection" of his "nontraditional" program.

Tom Crean
Indiana's fan base would surely love coach Tom Crean agreeing to a series of games with Louisville.
I'll be honest: Some part of me hoped the outrage from both programs' fan bases would be so loud that Calipari and Crean would realize the error of their ways, schedule a peace accord at the Galt House, and find a way to make this thing happen. Instead, both sides seem to have dug in. Besides, it's not like either fan base is about to criticize their coach. Both are head over heels in love; Crean just resurrected Indiana from the abyss, and Calipari just won a national title. ("Blind faith" doesn't begin to describe the comments on his blog.)

So, no, Kentucky-Indiana isn't happening. I've officially abandoned all hope. Which means I'm ready to settle on the next best thing. As Andy Katz reported in his 3-Point Shot this morning, that next best thing may indeed involve the Louisville Cardinals and one Rick Pitino. From Andy:
Louisville coach Rick Pitino said he wants to play Indiana next season. Hoosiers coach Tom Crean confirmed that the two sides are discussing the idea of a home-and-home series. “This is something we have to consider,’’ Crean said. [...]

“The polls have us 1 and 2,’’ Pitino said. “It would be good for us to have a game a 1-[hour], 45-[minute] bus ride away. It would be good for college basketball.’’

Any time Pitino and Calipari are mentioned in the same 800 words, there's a tendency to assume everything either is saying is intended to tweak the opposite number. And that may indeed be the case here; from a public relations standpoint, Pitino knows exactly what he's doing.

But guess what? I don't care! Because Pitino is right: Indiana-Louisville would be good for college basketball. It doesn't carry the same longstanding rivalry cachet as Indiana-Kentucky, and fans surely wouldn't be quite as rabid for this game as IU-UK, but that dream is dead. In its place is an opportunity for both teams to add a marquee, top-5 matchup, for fans to get to see two of the nation's best teams play early in the college hoops calendar. In a sport that has increasingly been marginalized by an awkward TV schedule and an apathetic approach to much of the regular season, that is a good thing.

It is also the long view. Crean and Calipari may not need the IU-UK game in any obvious tangible way, but discontinuing it in such fashion paints a picture of two programs who have lost the forest for the trees. The long-term approach would be to build a mutual level of interest and national awareness by keeping the rivalry as healthy as possible. That national interest wouldn't just help the sport, it would increase the Q ratings for both programs. Hey, why should UNC-Duke get to have all the "Oh, that game's on? We need to watch that!" casual fan fun?

Maybe that rivalry is now Indiana-Louisville. The two programs share a natural geographic rivalry, even if the historic skirmishes have never been as epic as either team, particularly Louisville, has shared with the Wildcats. Oh well. In the short term, Indiana-Louisville would give us one more great basketball game in 2012-13, and maybe the year after. In the long term, a healthy Hoosiers-Cardinals rivalry could come to be a defining tentpole in the early season nonconference schedule.

Either way, Pitino is right. It would be good for the sport. It would also be good for both programs, and good for their fans. Believe it or not, these concepts need not be mutually exclusive.