Louisville vs Kentucky is the best rivalry in college basketball

Dec 27, 2014; Louisville, KY, USA; Louisville Cardinals forward Montrezl Harrell (24) shoots against Kentucky Wildcats forward Marcus Lee (00) during the second half at KFC Yum! Center. Kentucky defeated Louisville 58-50. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 27, 2014; Louisville, KY, USA; Louisville Cardinals forward Montrezl Harrell (24) shoots against Kentucky Wildcats forward Marcus Lee (00) during the second half at KFC Yum! Center. Kentucky defeated Louisville 58-50. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports /

Louisville vs Kentucky is the best rivalry the sport of college basketball has to offer

On Wednesday night, John Calipari and Kentucky Wildcats will make the less-than-100-mile trek from Lexington to visit Rick Pitino and the Louisville Cardinals at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville. The two teams will face off for the 50th time in their history, with the Wildcats owning a 34-15 edge all-time. This is undoubtedly one of the greatest rivalries in college basketball, right up there with UNC-Duke and Indiana-Purdue. I’m here to tell you why it might be just a hair above all the rest.

Much like UNC-Duke and Indiana-Purdue, this game is one of the main events in sports in the state of Kentucky. Where Kentucky stands above the others, however, is that there are no professional sports teams in the state. While North Carolinians can #KeepPounding with the Panthers and folks from Indiana can head to Bankers Life Fieldhouse to watch the Pacers, those from the Bluegrass State have only college sports to call their own and this is the cream of the crop. Talk to almost anyone from Kentucky and they will let you know with which school their allegiance lies.

On top of not having a professional team, these two are far and away the biggest college athletics programs in the state of Kentucky. As the only two power-five members in the state, the level of competition at even the college level is low. While North Carolina and Indiana have the likes of NC State, Wake Forest, Notre Dame, or even newcomer Butler, there is very little else to vie for the attention of Kentuckians. Without a traditional football powerhouse either, college basketball is in the spotlight for most of the year and it shows when these two teams meet.

As well as being a top-billed sporting event that nearly the entire state looks forward to, this matchup only happens once a year. Louisville and Kentucky don’t play in the same conference, so they have to settle for an early-season matchup that is the marquee of their non-conference schedules. While losing to your rival always hurts, the pain can be numbed a bit by the knowledge that in a few weeks time, you’ll have to opportunity to exact revenge and even the score. Whoever emerges the victor tonight, though, will have an entire year’s worth of bragging rights, unless they should meet again in a higher-stakes NCAA Tournament game.

These teams are traditional powerhouses — they have 11 national titles and 27 Final Fours between them. Whichever team manages a victory tonight will enter the rest of their slate with a big win on their resume and one that will look excellent come Selection Sunday in March. Not only is this a matchup between bitter rivals, it is one with big implications for a postseason tournament whose seeding involves such heavy scrutiny of non-conference schedules. Both teams could go ahead to dominate and win their respective conference championships, and in that case a game such as this could be the deciding factor for the selection committee.

This is a rivalry that many say is the most heated or intense in all of sports. Some other rivalries are marked by the great respect the sides have for one another–watching each other have continued success will do that– but this one, in part because of its unique history (we’ll get to that in a second), leaves all of that behind. These two fan bases go all-out to make it known that they are superior to their rival from across the state in every way.

Now, back to that unique history I mentioned. Every great rivalry has a special historical aspect to it, but this one had fuel added to the fire by a man named Rick Pitino. He has, unbelievably, coached both of these programs with massive success (he owns a winning percentage of greater than 74% at both schools) and even turned both around from tough times. When Pitino was first hired by Kentucky in 1989, they were still recovering from a recruiting scandal that led the NCAA to put them on probation. He swiftly turned the program around and led them to three Final Fours and one title in his eight seasons there.

After a brief stint in the NBA, Pitino came back to college basketball in 2001, this time as the coach of Louisville. By his fourth season, he had led the Cardinals to their first Final Four in 19 years. He has remained the coach of the program since and has led them to, coincidentally, three Final Fours and one title. After having so much success as the coach in Lexington, it couldn’t have felt good for Big Blue Nation to watch him leave and lead Louisville to so much success. With the tradition of success Calipari has brought with him, though, they can’t be too distraught.

This year’s edition has a little more recent history fueling it as well. Though neither team has much of a history in football, this year’s Louisville squad appeared to be something special. They had the state’s first Heisman Trophy winner and were consistently demolishing weaker competition. Kentucky had a good year in their own right: it culminated with them knocking off No. 11 Louisville 41-38 and nearly dealing the fatal blow to Lamar Jackson’s Heisman hopes. Louisville fans will be anxious to exact some revenge for putting a final blemish on what had been a magical football season.

All of this history and rivalry and hatred culminates tonight with the best rivalry in college basketball at 7 p.m. EST in a clash of the titans. Kentucky is ranked sixth in the latest iteration of the AP Poll; Louisville, tenth. Each team has a lone loss on their ledger entering tonight. You can bet that whoever leaves tonight with their record intact will be cheering loud and proud. Oh, and they probably won’t let their losing counterparts forget it, either.