March 27, 2012

Dream game analysis

A look at how this tilt compares to past Cards vs. Cats match-ups

By the time this edition of LEO hits the stands, you will be attempting to sit peacefully over a burger at lunch to read this, the 54th or 89th or 150th dissection in print or online of The Game since Kentucky bested Baylor, setting up a Cats vs. Cards national semi-final. It will be but mid-week, and 72 hours still must pass before Saturday’s 6:09 p.m. tip-off. The clamor that commenced when the deal was sealed will have heightened to a numbing cacophony.

It shall be a din like no other.

It’s Feathers vs. Fur at the Final Four, baybeee, and, given the hyperbolic excitement level, life in the commonwealth as we know it won’t return to any semblance of normalcy until this tilt is in the record books. Should Louisville’s Cardinals happen to pull off the unimaginable, it will take considerably longer.

Yet, now, as I write this in the wee hours of Monday morning, the anticipation is still germinating. There is a fragile calm, as this basketball-addled state catches its first breath. Between now and tip, it shall become a deafening roar.

The Cardinals, first to RSVP to the party, have since Saturday afternoon been waiting at the door to greet the other invitees, snatching Florida’s invitation like a thief in the night. The Wildcats reserved their spot, having taught Baylor’s athletic Bears there’s more to basketball than jumping high and running fast. The winner moves on to play for the national title against the winner of Kansas vs. Ohio State.

Consideration of this game between Kentucky, the best team in the land, and Louisville, overachieving little brother, will have reached epic levels by game time. It’s being heralded as the biggest encounter ever in the series between the two heated rivals.

I beg to differ.

NCAA tournament tilts in 1959 and 1983 were more important.

UK and U of L had met twice in the modern era before that ’59 semi-final encounter. Adolph Rupp’s Wildcats easily won the Olympic Trials game in 1948, then a NCAA opener in 1951. UK was king; U of L merely a wannabe.

In ’59, the Cards finished the season with a less than glossy 16-10 record, and had to beat Eastern Kentucky to get a chance at the Cats. Perennial power UK was ranked No. 2 nationally.

U of L’s Peck Hickman, who built the program from scratch, badly wanted the win to cement his school’s status. So much so, he was too emotional to give the pep talk to his team, delegating that task to assistant John Dromo.

Dromo told that ’59 squad, “Peck would crawl across the floor on his hands to shake Mr. Rupp’s hand if he could win this game. That’s how much it means to him because he knows if he beats Kentucky tonight, then Louisville will never have to settle for being second best.”

Down eight points at the half, U of L outscored the Wildcats by 23 in the second to win, 76-61.

After the game, Rupp groused to his players, “They’re going out and they’re gonna be eating T-bone steaks. You’re gonna have hamburgers.”

Yet, equality of stature for U of L with UK in college basketball, or something resembling that, remained elusive.

The original Dream Game settled that.

By the 1983 tournament, U of L had captured a national title in 1980 and returned to the Final Four two seasons later. The Cardinals during that halcyon era were recognized across the country — if not across the Big Blue commonwealth — as a premier program.

The ’82-’83 edition of the Cards is considered by many fans as their best, finishing the regular season with only three losses. Kentucky was good, but not up to the lofty standards set during the Rupp era. Yet Kentucky refused to schedule Louisville.

That ’83 tournament match-up in Knoxville during which UK led most of the way was all any fan could hope for. Lead swings. A last second jumper to send it to overtime. Then a U of L dunkfest erupted for an 80-68 victory.

A sense of parity was thereby established. The schools started playing regularly the following season. Only a fool would deny U of L’s hoops pedigree now.

So Saturday’s national semi-final is surely the biggest since 1983, but not as important as those previous games.

Unless, that is, Louisville’s Improbables derail Kentucky’s Inevitables. The Cats are unarguably the best in the nation. Louisville is on an eight-game hum that is, given the team’s flaws, as difficult to explain as it is to comprehend.

Given the talent gap, U of L could play its very best and still lose. But, strange things happen this time of year.

So in advance of U of L vs. UK in the 2012 Final Four, fans of Red and fans of Blue in every corner of Kentucky, the epicenter of college hoops, are loudly debating every possibility.

United We Stand, Divided We Ball.