Kentucky rolled past Baylor in dominant fashion Sunday to return to the Final Four for the second consecutive year.
Louisville used a stirring late rally to stun Florida and get back to the Final Four for the first time since 2005.
Two tradition-rich teams with charismatic coaches located just 77 miles apart in a basketball crazed state — it’s a classic matchup that provides the most intriguing storyline for the final weekend of the NCAA tournament.
“There will be people at Kentucky that will have a nervous breakdown if they lose to us,” said Pitino, who coached the Wildcats from 1989-1997. “You’ve got to watch. They’ve got to put the fences up on bridges. There will be people consumed by Louisville.”
Pitino should know. After all, he led the college basketball blueblood to the 1996 national championship, four Final Fours, and several near misses. Kentucky coach John Calipari has been here before, too — although two of his four Final Four trips (one at Massachusetts and the other at Memphis) were vacated — but has yet to reach the summit and claim a national title of his own.
For a Kentucky team that entered the tournament as the No. 1 overall seed, anything short of a title would be a disappointment, even moreso after fans watched the Wildcats cruise into New Orleans with four double-digit victories and seemingly little difficulty.
Pitino has faced that pressure many times, but in Saturday’s semifinal, the roles will be reversed.
Now it’s Calipari whose team is heavily favored to cut down the nets while Louisville is the closest thing to a surprise in a Final Four loaded with heavyweights.
The Cardinals come in looking eerily similar to last year’s national champion Connecticut. After an up-and-down February, Louisville won four games in as many days to claim the Big East tournament title and has now won 10 straight in all — including an impressive upset of No. 1 seed Michigan State. The team’s brand of relentless defense leads to low-scoring games and plenty of frustration from its opponents.
Meantime the Wildcats just hammered high-flying Baylor in a game that felt over by the 10-minute mark of the first half. Kentucky’s talented front line of Naismith Award finalist Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist have been nothing short of dominant, and with guards Marquis Teague and Doron Lamb pushing the pace, the Wildcats may simply be too good not to win it all.
But Pitino and the Cardinals may have something to say about that, just as they did last fall when Calipari took an underhanded shot at Kentucky’s neighbors to the west. As Jon Solomon of The Birmingham News recalled Monday:
Remember what Calipari said last fall about his program while purposefully omitting Louisville? “There's no other state, none, that's as connected to their basketball program as this one. Because those other states have other programs. Michigan has Michigan State, California has UCLA, North Carolina has Duke. It's Kentucky throughout this whole state, and that's what makes us unique.”
Remember Pitino's response? “Four things I've learned in my 59 years about people. I ignore the jealous, I ignore the malicious, I ignore the ignorant and I ignore the paranoid. If the shoe fits anyone, wear it.”
With Kansas and Ohio State on the other side of the bracket, Saturday’s semifinals already boast plenty of potential. Throw in in-state and coaching rivalries, and it should be must-see TV.
More NCAA tournament coverage from Washington Post Sports:
Final Four: Interactive bracket & tournament history