Monday, March 26, 2012

The Battle of Bluegrass Thoroughbreds

Pitino Louisville versus Calipari Kentucky

March Madness and the Midwest Hayseeds - Where are the power conferences now?

East coast sports writers are left stunned after the NCAA round of eight left only Midwestern teams in the final four for national champions.  What happened to the eastern power conferences that dominated the selection process, conferences like the Big East and ACC?

Ashley Judd with UK Wildcat

Kentucky remains the prohibitive favorite and is the only number 1 team left in the tournament.  For the first time in about 50 years two teams from the same state will meet in the final four, Kentucky and Louisville, while the other two contenders are Ohio State next door to Kentucky and Kansas farther west.

We picked Kentucky as the winner and so far no one has come close to them.  Louisville, under the magic of former Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, has pulled off a series of major upsets to get to the final four.  Kentucky played Louisville earlier this year and UK won at home by just 7 points.   No one has come that close to UK in the tourney though they have played all away games.

Louisville Cardinal

Some sports analysts say the championship match will take second place to the semi-final battle between Kentucky basketball giants.  UK is the most successful team in NCAA basketball history while Pitino has made Louisville into the biggest basketball money generator for the school in the nation.

As John Clay of McClatchy Newspapers wrote:

ATLANTA — Not even Bourbon Street will know what hit it.

Welcome to what promises to be the wildest, craziest, most hyped, most exciting, most nerve-wracking and sleepless six days leading up to the biggest, most-anticipated sporting event in the history of our little commonwealth.

For a state that lives for basketball, this is a dream and a nightmare all at the same time.

This is Kentucky vs. Louisville in the Final Four for the first time.

This is the top-dog Cats, the NCAA Tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, winners of the South Regional by beating Baylor 82-70 on Sunday, versus the underdog Cards, No. 4 seed and surprise 72-68 West Regional winner over Florida on Saturday, squaring off in the Big Easy for a berth in the national championship game.

This is something that comes along once in, well, never.

It’s UK versus U of L, the state’s two biggest rivals on the sport’s biggest stage.

It’s John Caliapri and Rick Pitino, former coaching friends, now, well, current coaching competitors.

It’s one passionately insane fan base against another passionately insane fan base, that happens to reside within the same borders.

“It’s basketball,” said Calipari on Sunday as if this were a mere sporting event.

No, it’s Kentucky and Louisville basketball.

Oh, UK and U of L have played in the NCAA Tournament before, in the 1959 Mideast Regional semifinals (Louisville won), in the 1983 Mideast Regional finals (Louisville won) and in the 1984 Mideast second round (Kentucky won).

They’ve never met in the Final Four, however, though they came close twice.

In 1986, Louisville beat Auburn to win the West Regional, but Kentucky lost to LSU in the finals of the Mideast Regional.

In 1975, the two actually came within a whisker of playing for the national championship when Kentucky beat Syracuse in the national semifinal in San Diego, then Louisville lost a heartbreaker to UCLA in the second game that day.

Now, finally, everything has fallen into place.

However, don't overlook the other teams, Ohio State and Kansas, who rank among the basketball elite though they will not get the media attention of the Kentucky duo.  I lean toward Kansas reaching the finals against Kentucky with Kentucky winning but any of the four teams is capable of knocking off the others.

It should be a rousing finish to a rather lackluster NCAA season and if you have ties to Kentucky, the semi-final could just be a classic.  This is truly the Battle of Bluegrass Thoroughbreds.

By the way, UK is also still in the running in the NCAA Women's national tournament.  We just can't get enough of the Wildcats.

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