The Cats and the Cards are one of the top two or three most heated rivalries in the nation, if not number one – that was proven yesterday. If you don't believe it, count the number of national media vehicles parked outside Rupp Arena, add the number of scrapes and bruises on the bodies of the players at the end of the game and subtract the number of fans that left the game early to beat the rush out the parking lot. What is left is a pretty high number.
The off-the-court drama involving the coaches only served to intensify the already circus-like atmosphere. Rick Pitino made his first appearance in Lexington since his personal troubles involving an alleged affair became public. Entering the court at the last moment amidst a chorus of boos and jeers, Pitino joked that there were still three or four people that were happy to see him. I'd say he was exaggerating if I thought anyone would believe that Pitino was capable of stretching the truth. On the other end, the national media has certainly not let up on the Kentucky coach after former Indiana skipper Bobby Knight made public statements about Calipari's credibility for being at the helm of two programs which had NCAA Tournament appearances expunged.
For the players, given that most of the Kentucky starters are freshmen, native to states outside the bluegrass, the general distaste for all-things-Cardinal-red seemed very genuine. There was no conference title on the line, but the game was played as though there were. Most of the players from the two teams had never even met each other before the game, yet it was very much the Hatfields and McCoys on the floor. Knockdowns, hard fouls and taunts seemed to count almost as much as free throws and field goals.
The Wildcats' victory was huge. Not only does it give them an undefeated record heading into SEC play, but it proved that this very team could deal with enormous hype, play under tremendous pressure and handle incredible distraction.
There certainly were not a lot of style points to be handed out. The Wildcats gave away all of a double-digit lead despite the Cardinals 1-15 opening shooting effort. Their 2-14 three-point shooting will not deter many opponents from throwing a zone defense at them. And even the unflappable John Wall missed five free throws yesterday.
Through all that ugliness, however, the Wildcats showed that they are a team to be reckoned with, one that can bang, bump, dive and play smash-mouth basketball, and one that figures out a way to win. Most experts believe that the Wildcats are too inexperienced to handle the likes of Kansas and Texas in the NCAA, but they all agree that the potential of this young team is limitless.
While I certainly respect that Kansas and Texas have earned the privilege of being the early favorites to win the NCAA, I suspect they are both looking over their shoulders at Kentucky and neither team will want any part of them come March.