Bitter rivals Louisville and Kentucky meet in Final FourMar 30, 2012 - 5:16 PM New Orleans, LA (Sports Network) - Bluegrass State rivals square off in the Final Four of this year's NCAA Tournament, as the fourth-seeded Louisville Cardinals take on the top-seeded Kentucky Wildcats at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. The winner advances to Monday's national championship game to face either Ohio State or Kansas.
The bitter rivalry between these two schools exceeds traditional boundaries in that the two coaches, Louisville's Rick Pitino and Kentucky's John Calipari, simply do not like each other. Bad blood has existed between them for several years, but just a few months ago jumped to a whole other level when Calipari made statements about his team being the only one that truly matters in the state of Kentucky. Clearly miffed, Pitino, who was UK's head coach from 1989-1997, responded by saying he had no time for jealous, malicious, ignorant or paranoid people -- obvious jabs meant for Calipari.
The two teams, who have met a total of 43 times in history (Kentucky leads, 29-14), took center stage in Lexington this past New Year's Eve, and the Wildcats prevailed in a 69-62 final. Obviously not short on drama, the game also featured plenty of exciting plays and a couple of standout performances, as UofL's Russ Smith scored a career-high 30 points in leading the Cardinals back from an early 15-point deficit, while UK's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist logged a monster double-double consisting of 24 points and 19 rebounds. Both teams struggled to find their shooting touch, the Cardinals hitting 32.3 percent of their field goal attempts and the Wildcats only 29.8 percent of theirs, but the home team dominated the glass (57-31), outscoring the visitors in second-chance points, 20-6, as a result.
Louisville is 30-9 this season, and the Cardinals won the Big East Conference Tournament for the second time in four years with a 50-44 win over Cincinnati in the championship game. Pitino's club claimed narrow wins over Davidson (69-62) and New Mexico (59-56) in rounds two and three of the NCAA Tournament, and then posted a double-digit win over top-seeded Michigan State (57-44) in the West Regional semifinals. That set the scene for the Cards to take down former Pitino pupil Billy Donovan's Florida Gators in the regional final last Saturday, and the Cards did just that in claiming a 72-68 triumph. As a result, Louisville is in the Final Four for the ninth time, the first since 2005, and the team's overall mark in the Big Dance stands at 64-39. UofL has two NCAA titles to its credit (1980, 1986).
Pitino has coached six Final Four teams, and is the first (official) coach in history to lead three different teams to the national semifinals. Despite the tension that exists between himself and Calipari, Pitino recently talked about the respect he has for Kentucky, "The way I look at Kentucky and the way I look at their coaching staff, I marvel at excellence. I respect excellence. So I've got great respect for excellence."
He is also proud to say that his team never doubted itself, "What happens is, you can't lose confidence. I kept telling the guys, 'We're going to the Final Four. Win the Big East Tournament, you're going to the Final Four,' and they did."
Kentucky is arguably the top team in the country, and its 36-2 record on the year certainly lends credence to that. The Wildcats won their 45th SEC title this year by going a perfect 16-0 in league play, but dropped a 71-64 decision to Vanderbilt in the conference tournament title tilt. As the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, UK has notched double-digit wins over Western Kentucky (81-66), Iowa State (87-71), Indiana (102-90) and Baylor (82-70) to reach its second straight Final Four, and 15th overall. The 'Cats are 109-46 in this event over the years, and they have seven national championships to their credit (1948, 1949, 1951, 1958, 1978, 1996 (under Pitino), 1998).
Calipari is wrapping up his third year in Lexington, and owns a record of 100-14 at the school. As mentioned, this is the second straight year in which he has his team in the Final Four, and even his initial team went deep into the tourney, reaching the Elite Eight. Like Pitino, Calipari has also taken three different teams to the Final Four, but the 1996 appearance by Massachusetts and the 2008 appearance by Memphis was later vacated due to NCAA rules violations. Still, Calipari is considered to be one of the nation's top coaches, and despite the controversy that has plagued him throughout his career, he has an impressive record of 503-152.
Calipari wanted to downplay the rivalry as well with his recent comments, "When you are playing at this stage of the season, a win or a loss doesn't matter if it is against a school that is 12 miles from you or a thousand miles it really does not matter. We are playing a terrific basketball team that has terrific players that play a style that is aggressive and fast, they are really good. It doesn't matter how close they are to us, they are a very, very good team and it is going to be a hard game for us."
Not usually one to shy away from the spotlight, Calipari, who has never won a national title, was asked about this team being the one to finally get him over the hump, "I'm more concerned about our team playing great and those guys getting all those accolades and that stuff happening," He continued, "I'm just coaching my team. (I want it) for these fans, for these players, for this program."
For Louisville to win this game, pressure at the defensive end is going to be key. The Cardinals, who did a tremendous job in the meeting between these two earlier this season, yield just 60.8 ppg, and they've actually lowered that number to 57.5 ppg in the tournament. The reality is they simply can not run with a team as athletically-gifted as Kentucky, so instead of relying on a star or two to provide most of the offensive fireworks, UofL boasts a more balanced attack, with six players averaging at least 9.1 ppg. Kyle Kuric (12.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg) and Russ Smith (11.6 ppg) are the only two double-digit scorers, and the team enjoys favorable, albeit slight, margins in both rebounding (+1.6) and turnovers (+1.5). Smith, who comes off the bench most of the time, has three double-digit scoring efforts in this event, including a game-high 19 points in the recent win over Florida.
Like its counterpart today, Kentucky also plays solid defense (60.6 ppg), but the Wildcats are a much more potent offensive team (77.9 ppg). Their four opponents in this tourney have watched them roll up no fewer than 81 points, and they exacted revenge on Indiana for one of their two losses this season by putting up 102 points in their third-round matchup. UK is led by freshman sensation Anthony Davis (14.3 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 4.6 bpg), but the exceptional performances don't end with him, as Doron Lamb (13.6 ppg, .471 three-point FG percentage), Terrence Jones (12.6 ppg, 7.2 rpg), Kidd-Gilchrist (12.0 ppg, 7.6 rpg), Marquis Teague (10.0 ppg, 4.8 apg) and Darius Miller (10.0 ppg, ) are all capable of taking over game on any given night. Although Baylor actually won the battle on the boards last weekend (34-32), Kentucky is one of the top rebounding teams in the nation, laying claim to a +7.1 differential. Kidd- Gilchrist has been the club's top scorer in the last two games, while Davis has led the rebounding effort in the last three.
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