December 28, 2011

A basket(ball) case

Anxiety mounts in anticipation of the Cards vs. Cats match-up

To my surprise, the oddest detachment has appeared this holiday season. Only upon laboriously gathering the thoughts and words you are now reading did I, an inveterate Louisville basketball fan, begin to contemplate Saturday’s battle, the latest in the war that is the University of Kentucky Wildcats vs. the University of Louisville Cardinals.

This realization gave me pause to wonder why, as this game normally consumes me.

In seasons of yore, my pals and I would have been minutely breaking down the match-ups, considering Gorgui Dieng vs. Anthony Davis, Buckles and Chane Behanan against Terrence Jones, Peyton Siva vs. Marquis Teague. We would have pondered whether the Smith Brothers could cause Cats fans to cough nervously in their seats, if Michael Kidd-Gilchrist would be checked or keep his composure under pressure? Would U of L’s seemingly superior depth matter against UK’s talent?

We would be anxiously anticipating the coolness of the perfunctory pre-game handshake between Rick Pitino and John Calipari, debating which of those testy rival coaches would fashion the most salient adjustments and what those would be.

Adding to the curiosity of my aberrant inattention is that for the first time ever, this season’s rendition pits a Top 5 Cards team vs. a Top 5 Cats team.

So I gave pause to wonder, am I alone with this ennui?

Has the series also lost its luster for others?

Or am I simply in denial, so “certain” that U of L, despite its grit and will to win, is destined to fall, that I don’t want to think about it, focusing instead on the conference play ahead? Have I tired of the queasy stomach that occurs as tip-off approaches, those moments when my body tells me I care too much? Do I recognize some hidden truth that the result is rarely of consequence these days, except as fodder for chat-room smack talk and a catalyst for parking lot brawls?

Is it just a defense mechanism, kicking in as my id assures me a Cardinal loss is inevitable?

It seemed so odd years ago, when a rabid UK fan I know shared that he rarely watched Kentucky’s games live, especially the U of L game. He’d usually tape them, and only after knowing the Big Blue won would he click “Play.”

“But it’s about the experience of the game,” I’d offer, “the excitement of the competition.” He remained steadfast: “Can’t stomach it. I get too nervous.”

A few weeks ago, a similarly rabid booster, one who bleeds Cardinal red, one of those fellows with whom for decades I’ve been breaking down the games, before, during and after, warned he had no intention of watching this year. He would TiVo it and view only if Louisville happened to pull off the upset.

So I wonder, is it perhaps because both teams will be highly ranked when they take to the Rupp hardwood before a sea of blue, Verne Lundquist, Clark Kellogg and the hoops nation, that had me shying away from considering this year’s game?

On paper, UK appears to have the edge. More Golden Arches All-Americans. Home court advantage. More seasoning. The Cats have played Indiana and North Carolina and four games away from Lexington, while U of L has counted the Benjamins, venturing only once from the Yum!

Kentucky has America’s “It” coach on the bench. The team is ranked higher by experts and has national title on its mind. UK is the bookmakers’ favorite.

The Cardinals have certainly displayed strong determination. Yet I can’t help but wonder if their unblemished record is a false positive. At deadline, they stood 12-0, with the conference opener against Georgetown still to be contested before the match with Kentucky. All but one of the wins, during a bus trip to Hinkle Fieldhouse to beat underwhelming Butler, came in friendly confines.

By comparison, Louisville’s best start ever was 13-0 during the ’74-’75 campaign, crafted by a group of Cards that at season’s end came within a Richard Washington baseline jumper of playing UK for the national title in San Diego. Seven of those 13 victories were won on the road, against the likes of Houston, Dayton and sixth-ranked Marquette.

Gorgui Dieng, Chane Behanan, Russ Smith and Elisha Justice — all key cogs in the Cardinal machine — have never experienced Rupp as ravenous and raucous as it will be Saturday. Peyton Siva played six minutes in his only prior visit; Kyle Kuric and Rakeem Buckles but 10 minutes each. Only Jared Swopshire, with 30 minutes, saw significant court time the season before last.

Kentucky’s youngsters have similarly displayed uncanny poise under pressure so far, even during the loss in Bloomington. That game, along with the win over UNC, proved them capable of performing in a Big Game.

So, yes, now I contemplate this year’s smackdown, more nervous by the moment and suitably pessimistic. I understand why I’ve avoided thinking of the game. As good as UK is, Louisville has shown that it is capable of stealing one in Lexington. So my hopes ratchet to 11. The possibilities for debilitating disappointment lurk ominously.

Per usual, I’m now invested emotionally, a familiar queasiness. I no longer approach tip-off with an “It’s a fait accompli” attitude. My head spins.

If Dieng holds his own …

If Behanan and Buckles deepen Terrence Jones’ depression …

If Siva’s ankle holds up, the Smith Brothers stay cool …

If Swop comes off the bench with the eye of the tiger …

Does The Rick have a defensive quirk the young Cats can’t figure out?

Will the Basketball Gods shine their countenance down upon the Cardinals?

Where did I put that jar of Tums?