- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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NEW ORLEANS -- Like many of you, I had the Louisville codger punching out the Kentucky codger in the ESPN dialysis office pool. Never mess with a 71-year-old Cardinals fan with a good right jab.
But that's about it for UK failures these days. Otherwise, the Wildcats have all but locked up this Final Four, right?
In Saturday night's national semifinal at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, they'll flick away 8½-point underdog Louisville like a cigarette butt. Then late Monday evening, they'll dispose of whatever poor sap -- Kansas or Ohio State -- happens to advance to the championship game. For all we know, CBS already has Kentucky's "One Shining Moment'' video cued up and ready to go.
So spectacularly and unnaturally talented is the Kentucky roster that Gary Williams, the former Maryland coach, says UK could beat the NBA's Washington Wizards in a one-game matchup at Rupp Arena. And here's the kicker: Louisville star freshman Chane Behanan, who was recruited hard by UK and is buds with Wildcat freshmen Anthony Davis and Marquis Teague, agrees with Williams.
"They probably can," Behanan said between allergy-related sneezes Thursday. "I wouldn't doubt it. I'm not doubting Kentucky. They're a very, very good team. And they've got a lot of pros on the team. They probably can go in the NBA and win a couple of games."
Everything is in place for a Kentucky Koronation. The wise guys in Vegas love them. Hoops analysts swoon over them. And Behanan is right; the NBA draft later this year is going to be an infomercial for UK basketball. Everybody but the Kentucky team manager is going to be picked in the first round.
You can't even invent reasons why Kentucky could leave New Orleans without the NCAA championship trophy. The Dome Factor? Please. The Wildcats won't have any trouble putting the biscuit in the basket -- dome or no dome.
"It won't be [a factor] for Kentucky because they shoot a lot of layups and dunks,'' said Louisville coach Rick Pitino.
Kentucky has the title of No. 1 overall seed. Kentucky has Davis, the consensus national player of the year, and the almost equally gifted freshman, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Kentucky has a coach (John Calipari) with an obscene 87.7 winning percentage at UK.
On paper, the only thing that could stop the Wildcats from winning it all is gout or an arrow from Katniss Everdeen. Seriously, UK has lost once since Dec. 10. Indiana gave the Wildcats everything they could handle in the Sweet 16 -- and still lost by 12. The only thing uglier than Baylor's Elite Eight unis was its dozen-point loss to Kentucky.
The Saturday hoops nightcap -- Kansas vs. Ohio State -- is probably the more compelling basketball game. OSU star Jared Sullinger will play this time (he missed the 78-67 loss at KU's Allen Fieldhouse with back spasms). And the Jayhawks have transformed themselves from a 7-3 team in mid-December (including a 10-point defeat to Kentucky and a shocking home loss to Davidson) to a Final Four team in March.
But Rock Chalk vs. The i Dotters has nothing on Louisville vs. Kentucky. Mention the dialysis clinic dust-up between the elderly U of L and UK fans to Pitino and, almost like a proud father, the Cardinals coach smiles and said, "Did we win the fight?"
The UK players are on downplay-the-rivalry cruise control. It's as if Calipari has done a Spock mind-meld on them: It's just another game. It's just another game. It's just another game.
"At this time of the year, a rivalry doesn't really matter," Calipari said.
"We haven't really been paying attention to all of it," said UK senior guard Darius Miller.
Stop. There's no way not to pay attention to it. Even Calipari joked about the U of L dialysis patient punching out the UK guy.
"I'm disappointed about that," he said.
On a scale of 1 to 10 -- 10 being the highest on a hoops intensity level -- Louisville vs. Kentucky is a 12. Pitino talked about the rivalry's beginnings, that it was the product of racial division. Louisville, he said, was considered the "minority" university and Kentucky was supposedly the school of the "privileged."
No more. Times change.
"The lines are no longer racially motivated," Pitino said. "It's just pure hatred."
Whatever it is, the rivalry will be on full display Saturday evening. Kentucky should win. Then again, mighty UNLV should have defeated Duke in the 1991 national semi. Back then, people thought Jerry Tarkanian's team was good enough to beat NBA teams too.
Things happen, which is why Louisville, a No. 4 seed, is still playing and No. 1s Michigan State, Syracuse and North Carolina are out and No. 2s Duke and Missouri couldn't make it to the Round of 32. That's why Calipari, who coached in the NBA, slammed on the brakes when UK's invincibility was discussed.
"This team could not beat one NBA team, not one," he said. "The worst one in the league, we could not beat."
What matters is if Kentucky, making its second consecutive Final Four trip under Calipari, can beat the best remaining teams in this tournament. Can it handle the same pressures and expectations that caused some of UK's players to tighten up in last year's Final Four semi? Can it beat a cayenne-pepper-hot U of L team on a neutral court and with Pitino having seven long days to prepare?
Nothing against Ohio State and Kansas -- it should be a wonderful game -- but it doesn't have the drama biceps of Kentucky vs. Louisville. And there have been zero reports of unrest at dialysis centers in the Lawrence, Kan., or Columbus, Ohio, areas.
So here's what we're going to get Saturday evening: an upset for the ages, followed by thousands of UK fans shuffling comatose through the French Quarter like zombies in Night of the Living Dead.
Or another no-brainer Kentucky victory.
Anything is possible. Davis could overdose on beignets at Cafe du Monde and miss the game. Calipari could declare himself eligible for the New York Knicks job. But I doubt it.
I'm leaning hard toward Option No. 2 -- a UK win.
So are the Washington Wizards.
You can't even invent reasons why Kentucky could leave New Orleans without the NCAA championship trophy.