Tuesday, March 27, 2012 | 8:48 p.m.
The only event that could possibly be bigger in Kentucky would be if Secretariat was reincarnated and in the 2012 Derby starting gate. And even that might not do it this spring.
Louisville loves its basketball team. The commonwealth adores its state university. Both of them in the Final Four. Imagine?
To University of Kentucky fans, the only thing worse than losing to Louisville would be losing to Louisville coached by Rick Pitino, the man who brought their team back from disgrace and left for the NBA just as every fan was certain the Wildcats were going to win every national title until the end of time.
This tournament has broken just about perfectly for UK. The Wildcats are playing great, putting up 81, 87, 102 and 82 points in their wins. The other No. 1 seeds are gone. They get a No. 4 seed in Saturday’s national semifinals in New Orleans, a team that finished seventh in its own conference with a 10-8 record.
That team really should have been gone weeks ago. The Cardinals had significant injuries before the season even began. Their offense is underwhelming on a good day.
Still, that team won the Big East Tournament, overwhelmed No. 1 seed Michigan State in the Sweet 16 and made an impossible comeback from 11 points down with eight minutes left Saturday against Florida. That team is Louisville. And that coach is Rick Pitino, the man who left Lexington for the Boston Celtics and returned to Louisville.
Before this season began, UK coach John Calipari said only one team mattered in Kentucky. He wasn’t talking about Louisville.
The reality is that UK is the team revered around the state. But it’s not like Louisville does not have its own history or a substantial fan base that fills the shiny KFC Yum Center, an arena far nicer than stodgy Rupp Arena, a giant, but outdated monument to the passion of Wildcats fans.
Horses are Kentucky’s business. Basketball is its passion.
Neutrality does not exist. It is either Kentucky or Louisville.
It will be red vs. blue on Bourbon Street and everywhere else in New Orleans. The coaches do not like each other and it is not an act. It won’t be friendly. Kansas and Ohio State will be a sideshow until the UK-UL game is done.
Apparently, there just are not enough eyeballs in Kentucky to get that into primetime. So, they will go first on Saturday. Kentucky really should win. But Coach Cal was right when he said his team is the only team not allowed to lose.
And if they lose to Louisville, Cal and all those crazy fans may never recover.
THE FIRST GAME
It was very ugly when UK played Louisville at Rupp on New Year’s Eve. The teams combined to shoot 70 free throws and commit 52 fouls. They were 37-for-119 (31.1 percent) from the field. Kentucky led, 31-16, with five minutes left in the first half. Three minutes later, Louisville was down by a point. UK ended up winning, 69-62.
WHY PITINO’S THE BEST
Louisville has no business being in this Final Four. The Cardinals just do not have enough talent.
They had no business beating Florida.
So how did this go down?
When three of his key starters had four fouls with nine minutes to go in the game and his team down double digits, what did Pitino do? He left them in the game, playing to win where almost every coach would have sat them down, played not to lose and lost.
Big man Chane Behanan scored nine points in the last eight minutes, including the game winner. Point guard Peyton Siva fouled out with four minutes left, but the Cardinals had already made their run by then.
The Louisville all-in made Florida (which missed its last seven shots and 11 of its last 12) play tight and got the Cardinals to the finish line.
Pitino is a first-time finalist for the Basketball Hall of Fame. The new class will be announced Monday at the Final Four. If he is not elected, the voters should be embarrassed.
THE OTHER GAME
Kansas and Ohio State had terrific seasons and are very worthy Final Four participants. The battle in the lane, alone, should be classic -- Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas against Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey.
THEIR FIRST GAME
Kansas beat Ohio State, 78-67, on Dec. 10 at Allen Field House. Forget that result. Sullinger (back spasms) did not play.
They will always wonder at Syracuse and North Carolina.
The Orange’s zone never looked right even as they won three games. Ohio State attacked it inside on Saturday. Got to think Fab Melo might have helped.
North Carolina had one good offensive half out of four without point guard Kendall Marshall. It was good enough to survive against Ohio, not good enough against Kansas.
THREE SCHOOLS IN FINAL FOUR
Pitino (Providence, Kentucky, Louisville) was the only coach to take three different schools to the Final Four until Calipari (Massachusetts, Memphis, Kentucky) did it last year.
No coach has ever won the title at two different schools. This will be Pitino’s second chance. Louisville was in the 2005 Final Four.
It’s Big East vs. SEC and Big 12 vs. Big Ten. Big Ten teams are 11-5 in the tournament. The Big East is 14-8 while the SEC is 9-3 and the Big 12 is 9-6. The mighty ACC finished just 6-5 when North Carolina went down Sunday.
Each of the teams has won at least 30 games. The combined records are 128-24.
The Final Four schools have combined for 13 national championships -- Kentucky (seven), Kansas (three), Louisville (two) and Ohio State (one).
If you like team defense, you will love this Final Four. The four teams came into the weekend ranked first (Louisville), second (Ohio State), fourth (Kansas) and 12th (Kentucky) in defensive efficiency.
Kentucky (second) and Ohio State (ninth) were also way up there in offense. Kansas was solid at 19th. Louisville was 108th.
THE REGIONAL NUMBERS
• Kentucky scored 102 points against Indiana on Friday while committing just six turnovers.
• Kentucky scored 31 points in 10 first-half minutes Sunday against Baylor, making 11 straight shots at one point. It was beautiful and frightening.
• UK took 81 free throws in the regionals and has a tournament-best 87 fastbreak points.
• UNC and KU combined for 94 first-half points Sunday while making just five threes
• UNC’s issue was always going to be three-point shooting. It killed them against the Jayhawks when they went 2-for-17 ...
• KU led, 68-67, against NC with three minutes left and scored the game’s final 12 points.
• Florida was 14-for-21 and 8-for-11 from the arc in the first half against Louisville. The Gators went 0-for-9 from three in the second half.
• There were 25 points scored in the final 68 seconds of the Ohio State-Syracuse game. It seemed like it was never going to end.