Stakes higher in this Final Four game against rival Louisville



By Aaron Smith

ATLANTA — It’s still a week away, but the state of Kentucky already feels saturated with Final Four talk.

UK. Louisville. A rematch with raised stakes, raised unbelievably high, no matter what the teams actually playing in the game may say.

While some of Louisville’s team were looking toward the potential matchup after its win — “There will be people in Kentucky who will have a nervous breakdown if they lose to us,” Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said at his press conference — UK’s team stayed away from playing up the rivalry angle.

At least three different players (Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Doron Lamb) said it was just another game, a sentiment their coach echoed.

“I’m not worried about who we’re playing,” head coach John Calipari said. “I’m just happy we’re still playing.”

But come on — it’s not. A Final Four matchup between two schools from the same state hasn’t happened since 1962.

“I’m happy myself that it’s two Kentucky teams,” said Darius Miller, a Maysville, Ky., native.

“It’s an honor for our state,” Doron Lamb said.

The anticipation started as soon as Louisville made a furious comeback to beat Florida in its Elite Eight game Saturday. Almost immediately after that buzzer sounded, attention shifted to a potential rivalry rematch in the Final Four.

“It’s already crazy in our regular-season game, just the Kentucky fans and the Louisville fans going at it,” Miller said Saturday. “So I can’t imagine what it would be like in the Final Four.”

He won’t have to imagine anymore after UK took care of its half of the bargain. The Cats certainly didn’t appear to be looking ahead against Baylor, storming out to a 20-point halftime lead en route to an 82-70 victory.

Once that item was checked off, though, a good portion of the post-game locker room chatter centered on a game sitting at the opposite end of the weekly calendar.

“Oh, man, I can’t wait,” said Twany Beckham, a Louisville native. “It’s going to be fun. They’re playing really well right now, but we’ve got a week to prepare for them, and I think we’ll be ready when the time comes.”

It will be a reprise of the New Year’s Eve game, an offensively challenged slugfest that UK won somewhat comfortably, 69-62.

At the time, it felt like bragging rights for another year. It usually is.

But now, the teams will meet again, exactly three months later — Dec. 31 to March 31.

“Hopefully we’ll have some fun this week,” Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said.

It will be five (and a half) straight days of over-analyzing, of fan bravado, of giddy anticipation.

And then, hopefully, it will be a great game on Saturday.