Friday, March 23, 2012
Updated: March 24, 3:54 AM ET
Just two wins from bluegrass heaven
By Gene Wojciechowski
ATLANTA -- Thanks to the numbing agent No. 1 Kentucky used to finally subdue Indiana just past midnight, we are now a combined 80 minutes away from a game never thought possible until now.
Say it with me: Kentucky versus Louisville
Kentucky versus Louisville
Kentucky versus Louisville
If it happens -- and I'm openly and unapologetically rooting for the matchup -- the entire Commonwealth of Kentucky will need its medication adjusted. It will make the Derby look like Bible study class. One way or another, it will become basketball legend.
"I've worked here since July of 1978," said Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Rick Bozich. "It would be the biggest sporting event that I could remember covering in nearly 34 years."
"It would be ridiculous," said Lexington Herald-Leader columnist John Clay. "Totally ridiculous."
It would be six exits past ridiculous. The state would shut down on Final Four Saturday. You could run naked through downtown Louisville or Lexington and nobody would notice. Fans in the hoops-addicted Commonwealth would be duct-taped to their TVs.
Of course, there's still some heavy lifting to be done in these remaining 80 pre-Final Four minutes. Louisville has to beat Florida in Saturday's West Regional final and UK has to beat Baylor in Sunday's South Regional final.
Neither game is a gimme, but Kentucky, the top overall seed, should slide past Baylor -- that is, if it doesn't suffer permanent retina damage from the Bears' Day-Glo unis. It will be tougher for Louisville to deal with the Gators.
Kentucky wanted revenge against Indiana and it got it. For nearly 3½ months, the Wildcats had lived with the memory of IU's buzzer-beater victory at Assembly Hall -- UK's only regular-season defeat. And just in case they forgot how it ended, ESPN ran a commercial highlighting the Hoosiers' dramatic win about, oh, 400,000 times in the past month.
Friday evening (and into Saturday morning) at the Georgia Dome, Kentucky grinded its way into a third consecutive Elite Eight. It was a terrific game played by two terrific teams. UK won 102-90, but Indiana forced the Wildcats to play hard until nearly the last minute.
When it is was done, IU coach Tom Crean hugged friend and UK coach John Calipari and said, "Make sure you have enough to win this thing."
This thing. The national championship.
Calipari looked so tired after the victory that he actually appeared to nod off during the postgame news conference, which stretched past 1:15 a.m. But he perked up when asked about what was left in the Wildcats' reserve tank.
"When you're playing at this time of the year, you've got more energy than you need," he said.
Look at your office pool bracket. Kentucky was the peoples' choice in the South, but I'm not even sure Louisville coach Rick Pitino picked the No. 4-seed Cardinals to go this far in the West. In fact, I think I had them losing in the second round of the NIT.
But here Louisville is, defying logic and making the NCAA selection committee look like drama school graduates. I get misty just thinking about it.
First, the committee gave us the possibility of a Duke-Kentucky regional final matchup on the 20-year anniversary of The Shot. Sadly, Lehigh's upset of the Blue Devils 86'd that idea.
But the committee didn't stop there. It also provided a long shot UK-UL scenario in the national semifinal. All Kentucky would have to do is follow form as the tournament favorite. And all Louisville would have to do is quit stinking it up like it was auditioning for the campfire scene in "Blazing Saddles."
On March 3 at Syracuse, after its fourth loss in six games, Pitino cleared out the locker room of non-player personnel and delivered a come-to-Jesus speech. The Cardinals haven't lost since.
Kentucky senior guard Darius Miller has noticed the Louisville resurgence -- sort of. He knows the Cardinals have positioned themselves for a possible trip to New Orleans and the Final Four, but it's not like he's counting the minutes.
"I'm sure that would be a real exciting game if that happens," said Miller, who scored 19 points against IU. "But we still got another game and so do they. So we've got to focus on Baylor."
And this from UK freshman forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who doesn't seem to be monitoring Louisville's progress: "No. I don't know what they did. But it's a good team. That's it."
OK, I get it: Baylor first. But in the privacy of the UK team hotel, how can the Wildcats not root for a Louisville matchup?
|If two things happen this weekend, UK coach John Calipari will face off with old rival Rick Pitino at the Superdome in New Orleans.|
A Kentucky-Louisville game would give the law of probability a cluster headache. After all, there was a better chance of Rick Pitino Day in Lexington than the Cardinals making this NCAA run.
Best of all, the matchup would have more storylines and subplots than Ashley Judd has Big Blue T-shirts.
The delicious short list:
• Pitino likes Calipari only slightly less than children like asparagus Jell-O. And Calipari isn't against gigging Pitino with some well-placed verbal body blows about Louisville's in-state hoops relevance.
After the early March loss at Syracuse, Pitino critics were openly questioning his ability to coach, to recruit and to keep up with Calipari. In short, they wanted to know if the game had passed Pitino by.
I think we have our answer now.
• Generally speaking, UK fans wouldn't be against U of L slipping into the deep end of the nearby Ohio River. And U of L fans would be in favor of UK becoming a barber college. Maybe that's because Kentucky has beaten the Cardinals three years in a row.
• Don't kid yourself, UK and Big Blue Nation are terrified of the thought of Pitino's team ending the Wildcats' season. It would deprive Calipari of his first national title and Kentucky of its first since 1998.
Worse yet (for UK), it would mean that Pitino, the former Kentucky coach who gave the program some of its finest moments (including a national championship in 1996) and then bolted for the Boston Celtics, would be in the national championship game. In terms of pure anguish, a UK loss to Louisville could challenge the pain of that 1992 OT loss to Duke/Christian Laettner in the East Regional final.
"They're playing well," said UK freshman Kyle Wiltjer of Louisville. "But we're going to worry about Baylor and listen to what Coach Cal wants us to do."
Trust me, Coach Cal wants to play Pitino's Cardinals in the national semis and crush them.
And nothing against Billy Donovan and his fine Florida team, but please don't screw this up. If anybody can appreciate what a UK-Louisville matchup would mean, it's Donovan, who played for Pitino at Providence and later was an assistant for him in Lexington.
Ditto for the University of RG3. You got a Heisman, so let's not get too greedy come tournament time. There's nothing wrong with reaching the Elite Eight -- and stopping.
So cross your fingers. Root for the matchup that would be the gift that keeps giving.
Baylor and Florida will understand.
|Rick Pitino is one win away from his sixth trip to the Final Four.|
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Last Great Game," focuses on the 1992 Kentucky-Duke game. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.