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Only Kentuckians Understand UK-UofL Rivalry

INDIANAPOLIS — For all the emotions born into Kentucky and Louisville fans any time the two teams play in any sport—especially men’s basketball—it’s not something aliens to the Commonwealth fully grasp. And as far as who will play in Friday’s Sweet 16 game mere miles away less than two hours north of the river that separates Those Who Get It from Those Who Don’t, most are aliens.

It’s not that Kentucky’s and Louisville’s players don’t care about the rivalry aspect of playing each other, especially when the loser’s season is over and the winner is a game away from the Final Four.

So to them, this will be just another game. Just another game, of course, in a single-elimination setting on a national stage on a Friday night during college basketball’s biggest time of the year—but once the ball tips, that’s it: It’s a game.

Willie Cauley-Stein can see it from the fan’s perspective, though. A native Kansan, he compared it to if Kansas and Kansas State played in the NCAA Tournament.*

“The fans are the same, just different teams,” Cauley-Stein said. “I answered the question earlier: It doesn’t really mean much to you if you’re not from Kentucky. If you’re not from Kentucky, you don’t understand it. It’s that simple. I’ve been here two years, I still don’t understand the rivalry.”

*Kansas and Kansas State have only played once in the NCAA Tournament: a 71-58 Jayhawks win on March 27, 1988 in the Elite Eight in Pontiac, Mich. The Jayhawks ultimately won that year’s national championship.

Cauley-Stein’s vantage point on the rivalry allows him added perspective, that all the trash talk that happens back and forth between Cats and Cards fan illuminates their similarities more than their differences.

“If you ask a UK fan about the rivalry and now ask a Louisville fan about the rivalry, they say the same kind of trash talk about each other but just different. Like, it’s the same thing but on the different side of it. It’s funny, because they’re so similar.”

A reporter then his follow-up question, but Cauley-Stein quickly interjected:So they’re more alike …

“Than they really think,” Cauley-Stein interrupted. “Exactly. That’s why it’s funny. You all are really saying the same thing, just on the different side of it.”

Many Kentuckians on the two rosters seem to be approaching Friday’s game with a bit of distance. They have to; they’re players. The stakes of the game’s outcome are more important to them than its circumstances. The three Kentuckians on the two rosters most likely to log minutes Friday—Louisville’s Tim Henderson (of Louisville), and Kentucky’s Jarrod Polson (Wilmore) and Jon Hood (Madisonville)—have been there before, anyway. All three were on the bench when Kentucky beat the Cardinals in the Final Four in 2012 (though none logged minutes), so they’ve all had a share of what’s in the air when Kentucky and Louisville meet with something more is on the line than usual.

When asked, each responded that they associated Friday’s game primarily with “Sweet 16” instead of “Kentucky-Louisville.”

Hood is a fifth-year senior—he red-shirted the 2011-12 season after tearing an ACL in July 2011—and will be on the UK bench for his seventh Kentucky-Louisville game, more than any player in either school’s history. His first UK-UofL game was one of the rivalry’s most infamous, and it’s the first thing he said comes to his mind when he reflects on the six that he’s already been a part of.

On Jan. 3, 2010, Hood was a freshman, and John Calipari was in his first season as the UK coach. Calipari and Louisville coach Rick Pitino already had developed a rivalry when the two coached opposite each other in Conference USA—Pitino at Louisville, Calipari at Memphis—and the build toward their first meeting in this particular rivalry was suffocating. The air inside Rupp Arena that day was so thick, it seemed toxic.

That’s the first event Hood thinks of when he thinks Kentucky-Louisville, but even then, he remembers one Louisville player.

“Reginald Delk,” Hood said. “Everybody talks about the elbow that DeMarcus (Cousins) threw at (Jared) Swopshire. The almost-fight that ensued right after the tip when Reginald Delk wouldn’t smack Eric (Bledsoe)’s hand was probably up there, because we had to take Eric out one play in or he was about to kill Reginald Delk. That was my freshman year. I was like, ‘Whoa, OK. Here we go. This is what it’s about.’ ”

At the end of the day, Hood said too much is on the line tomorrow to get caught up in the rivalry aspect of it. It’s a good thing for fans and Kentuckians to have, but that’s where it leaves off. Cauley-Stein may have been on to something, because Henderson responded in an almost-identical way.

“I grew up a UofL fan. I’m from the city, and I’m from all this, so I know how big it is,” Henderson said. “But I’m not getting caught up in any of that. I’m just staying focused like I would be for any other game. All these guys are doing the exact same thing as well.”

This story appears courtesy of KY Forward and is written by James Pennington. KY Forward's coverage of UK Athletics is sponsored by Republic Bank.

Photo: Jarrod Polson is one of a handful of Kentuckians who could check in to Friday’s Sweet 16 game between Kentucky and Louisville. (Photo by James Pennington)