A different feel for many Louisville basketball fans going into this year’s rivalry game against Kentucky.
Rick Pitino is armed with an array of talented and seasoned veterans, exceptional guard play and plenty of beef in the front court, and a group of players keenly attuned to the fierceness of the rivalry. John Calipari will arrive with a handful of future NBA draft picks still finding their way and few upperclassmen to bridge the gap in talent.
U of L enters the fray ranked among the top five teams in the nation, but UK is unranked for the first time in four seasons, nowhere to be found in the top 25.
Not that past experience is a reliable predictor of future performance in a rivalry that means so much to coaches, players and fans involved in grudge matches. One or more of the future NBA stars could erupt at any time, the unpredictable almost a given in such settings.
The different feel, however, goes beyond the talent on the court, with UofL enjoying a much brighter future conference-wise. UK fans have always enjoyed the security of belonging to the Southeastern Conference, believing that UofL resided on the other side of the track, outside the more prestigious leagues. Or as one of their fans told me personally last fall “UK plays in a big-time atmosphere, UofL has always played in the minor leagues.”
UK refused to play Louisville, remember, for more than four decades, not wanting to give UofL any sense of respect or equality by competing on the same basketball court or football field. Even when they were forced to begin competition in the 1980′s, there was always that smugness, that false sense of superiority.
All that has changed with the University of Louisville having been invited to the Atlantic Coast Conference, a league whose members will respect UofL as a school in good standing, with universities such as Duke, North Carolina and others that UK could only hope to emulate in terms of overall prestige.
Fans being fans, and fans of UK being among the most extreme examples, they’re always going to have problems acknowledging any of UofL’s accomplishments. That’s okay. But Louisville’s forthcoming membership in the ACC is impossible for them to belittle or ignore. The ACC is an entirely different neighborhood.