|ESPN.com: NCAA Tourney 14||[Print without images]|
INDIANAPOLIS -- It began with a round of Irish whiskey. Jameson, to be exact.
Louisville had just toppled Saint Louis in the third round to secure a slot in the Sweet 16, the 12th appearance for Rick Pitino. To commemorate the achievement, a Cardinals booster mingling in the lobby ordered shots at the bar in the DoubleTree hotel in Orlando, Fla., and proposed a toast "to the coach who is 11-0 in the Sweet 16."
But Pitino, standing nearby as his team awaited word from the NCAA that its charter flight was ready for departure, seemed baffled by the gesture.
"He said, 'I am [11-0]?'" recalled Drew Deener, a Louisville play-by-play broadcaster and local radio host.
There's an aura of bewilderment hovering over the entire Louisville-Kentucky encounter at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Friday, too.
How did we get here?
Of all the seasons when this could have happened, this wasn't supposed to be the one. Everything that unfolded in the weeks leading up to the NCAA tourney made this pairing improbable, it seemed.
This is not 2012, when both teams willed themselves into the Final Four. This postseason affair -- another installment of the fiery rivalry -- wasn't orchestrated by destiny as much as by chance.
|Russ Smith and Louisville just needed some time. The defending champions finally seem fully ready.|
It just happened. Rabbit in the hat. Poof.
It seemed possible in the beginning of the season, when the two teams were top-three squads, but then appeared unlikely late in the season. Louisville has lost one game since Jan. 30 but lacked the résumé to warrant a top-three seed. The Cardinals certainly had juice, but if they couldn't handle Kentucky (the Cardinals suffered a 73-66 loss to the Wildcats on Dec. 28), Memphis or Cincinnati, how would they compete for a national title?
The Wildcats, in spurts, looked like the juggernauts they've become in recent weeks (days, maybe), but Kentucky ended up in the No. 8 versus No. 9 game in the tourney's opening weekend. The Wildcats had played some good teams but ended most of those games without a win. And how long can a program thrive on potential alone?
Both squads were tossed into the Midwest Region, the toughest section in the field. Kentucky versus Louisville in the Sweet 16? Maybe, but the obstacles surpassed the possibility.
Louisville gets by Manhattan and Saint Louis and Kentucky beats Kansas State and Wichita State? C'mon.
"I felt like Louisville would advance, but I thought Wichita State would beat Kentucky," said Rex Chapman, a former Kentucky and NBA guard. "I just felt like Wichita State's maturity would win out."
But Kentucky defeated Kansas State and top seed Wichita State on its way to the Sweet 16. And Louisville wrestled with Manhattan and Saint Louis to earn its slot in Indianapolis and a matchup with its Magneto. These two squads engage in a war each season that affects the entire region. That's predictable, though.
This is relatively spontaneous.
The buildup to Friday's game was surprising, considering the commotion each program overcame in 2013-14.
Even when the NCAA's selection committee threw the in-state foes into the same region, another fight between the two did not seem inevitable. Kentucky had been inconsistent all season. The Wildcats had gone from hype to horror -- in the eyes of a fan base that fell into the same trance that also trapped media members who gave the collection of McDonald's All-Americans the No. 1 preseason ranking -- as the dream began to die. The idea that this could be the greatest recruiting class of all time quickly became a fairy tale. The Cats weren't ready.
Before the SEC season, the only teams that defeated John Calipari's program were North Carolina, Michigan State and Baylor. The true scrutiny arose when it suffered losses to Arkansas and South Carolina. Losing to a bunch of tourney teams was forgivable. Those L's against a couple of mediocre SEC programs were not.
But Louisville had a variety of issues, too. Luke Hancock had to deal with the recovery from an Achilles injury. Russ Smith clearly missed Peyton Siva and needed some time to adapt to his new backcourt partners, Chris Jones and Terry Rozier. Last season's Louisville frontcourt featured Gorgui Dieng, a shot-blocking, rebounding, swift-passing big man who earned a slot in the first round of this past summer's NBA draft. Six-foot-8 Montrezl Harrell -- a combo forward last season -- became the man inside, and freshman Mangok Mathiang was just too raw to matter.
Plus, a program with a new lineup had to digest Pitino's matchup zone and man-to-man schemes.
That wasn't easy.
Even more difficult? Louisville's early, futile search for itself.
"I think we were struggling to kind of find an identity at that point," Hancock said about the team's mindset entering the December matchup against Louisville.
That's the past.
Friday's meeting features two improved programs.
The Wildcats finally found religion and recognized how much damage they could do if they all worked toward the same goals. And the Cardinals stitched together a successful stretch and closed strong, the same late-season surge they used to make a run to the national title last season.
"We're playing as a team, having a lot more fun," Kentucky point guard Andrew Harrison said. "We're enjoying just being on the court with each other now."
Added star freshman forward Julius Randle, "We just have committed to each other on both ends of the floor."
Kentucky is in the top 25 in adjusted offensive efficiency and adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. Randle, who finished with 17 points in 17 minutes in Kentucky's 73-66 win over Louisville on Dec. 28, has been unstoppable in recent weeks. Harrison is a more mature and trustworthy point guard than he was a few months ago. They're all jelling now.
|Kentucky had so much hype, so many expectations, and the Wildcats fell only to rise here in March.|
"You knew it was just a matter of time before they started to click," former NBA and Kentucky star Antoine Walker said. "When you got young guys, especially when you've got five or six guys that are potentially NBA prospects, sometimes, it's hard to get guys to buy into the team concept."
It took five months to get here, but the Wildcats are here, and that's a dangerous situation for every remaining team.
We all wondered what would happen if this crew of NBA prospects ever synchronized. Now, we're witnessing it.
"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," Calipari said.
But Louisville is different now, too. This Cardinals defense (third in adjusted efficiency, per Pomeroy) has that same Mike Tyson-like blitzkrieg approach that has helped the team pummel opponents since late January. Jones and Smith have the oomph Louisville will need to defend its national crown. Hancock is healthy. And Harrell (14.0 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 1.4 BPG) is just scary.
Beyond the rivalry and the first game this season -- which Kentucky won with ease even though Randle missed most of the second half with cramps -- this is a matchup that exemplifies everything this tournament is supposed to represent, everything that draws us to the perennial frenzy.
It doesn't matter who you were. Only who you are now.
"I know we have a very good basketball team," Pitino said. "They have a very good basketball team. It should be a heck of a game."
And the chatter usually ends right there.
We'd discuss the specifics, the matchups, the coaches, the stars, and, then, we'd just let the hardwood be the jury.
But this isn't a game. It's Louisville versus Kentucky. Loser goes home and faces a vortex of torture --- via friends, co-workers and social media -- until the programs face off again next season.
The gravity of the moment has been recognized by both coaches, who want to minimize it. Calipari told reporters Thursday that he has advised his players to focus on the game and avoid the buzz.
"This week, what I told them [was] don't watch any TV," Calipari said. "Watch the History Channel, watch Biography, watch the Military Channel, watch movies and don't read anything. Don't look at anything."
Smith said the rivalry is secondary to the real stakes.
"It is a rivalry game," Smith said. "There's no way around it. But, at the end of the day ... it's much bigger than a rivalry. It's a Sweet 16 game."
The idea that one enemy will dictate the other's postseason fate is significant.
Either Louisville will dismiss Kentucky's youngsters and preserve Pitino's undefeated record in the Sweet 16 or the Wildcats will end the college careers of Smith and Hancock in a strange, unexpected sendoff that could prove Kentucky just needed ample opportunity to grow. These possibilities are the only things folks in Lexington, Ky., and Louisville, Ky., are talking about right now.
"It sets the town in motion," Deener said. "It sets the conversation. You can't go on Facebook. You could say, 'Gee, it's warm outside' and you're three comments away from 'Screw you. UK sucks' or 'Screw you. Louisville sucks.' I bet at the nail salon you'd be having conversations about it."
On Friday night, shots and drinks will be poured throughout the state of Kentucky, some consumed in celebration, others in grief.
Then, fans on both sides will wake up Saturday morning and wonder how this even happened.