published Saturday, March 31st, 2012

Kentucky-Louisville matchup bigger with fans than players

NEW ORLEANS -- Louisville senior Chris Smith has heard the talk all week regarding his team's Final Four game against bitter rival Kentucky this evening at 6:09 inside the Louisiana Superdome.

He knows about the Kentucky fan and the Louisville supporter who got in a fight at the dialysis clinic. He knows about the fences that his coach, Rick Pitino -- who formerly coached the Wildcats -- said would need to be built on the Commonwealth's bridges to keep Big Blue backers from jumping if the Cats lost to the Cardinals.

He knows that when it comes to college basketball, UK versus U of L is Auburn-Alabama during football season, a 24-7, 365-days-a-year hate.

"The fans take it as, you know, whoever loses, it's their funeral," Smith said. "It's really cutthroat."

Just don't expect him or the other players to view it with the same hatred.

"For the fans I can understand that it's more than a game," he said. "But for us, we've been playing this game for so many years that it's just another basketball game, just a bigger stage."

As stages go, the Final Four's never gotten much bigger than the Superdome, which is expected to hold more than 70,000 tonight for the semifinals, with Kansas-Ohio State expected to tip off around 8:45.

Having already hosted Final Fours in 1982, 1987, 1993 and 2003, the Superdome is holding its first NCAA championship weekend since Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005.

But none of those Final Fours featured twin semifinals between teams that had faced each other in the regular season, UK having beaten Louisville 69-62 on New Year's Eve and Kansas having upset Ohio State 78-67 in December, when OSU star Jared Sullinger sat out with an injury.

"We caught a huge break when he didn't play the first game," Kansas coach Bill Self said Friday. "[Sullinger] is as good a low post scorer as there is in the country. They're not the same team that we played, because they've improved a lot."

All four of these teams have improved, of course. UK's top-ranked Wildcats have won 28 of their last 29 games and stand 36-2 overall. Self's Jayhawks are 31-6 and winners of 13 of their last 14. Louisville lost four of its final six regular-season games but has won eight straight, including the Big East tournament, which was pretty much the same formula Connecticut used last year to win the national championship.

As for Ohio State, the 31-7 Buckeyes have won eight of their last nine games.

"Us having Jared, he obviously makes us a better basketball team," OSU coach Thad Matta said. "[But] him being out probably helped make us a better basketball team in the long run."

No one has improved as much as Louisville, which was 22-9 after falling to Syracuse on March 3 and hasn't lost since. Nor are the Cards being secretive about their game plan for knocking off Big Blue.

"We've got to get [Anthony Davis] in foul trouble," Smith said. "That will pretty much give us the game."

It gave Indiana the game against the Wildcats in December when the freshman Davis -- who's already won national player of the year honors from the Associated Press, The Sporting News and U.S. Basketball Writers -- got in early foul trouble.

But Kentucky also beat Indiana last week in the Sweet 16 with Davis in similar foul trouble.

"If that's their game plan, go at it," UK senior forward Darius Miller said. "We've still got other players who can play."

Having four teams with 30 wins each in the same Final Four shows that each is capable of winning it all.

But while not a single Kentucky or Louisville player discussed the Kansas-Ohio State game, none other than Ohio State's Sullinger freely discussed tonight's first semifinal.

"Blue versus red," he said. "Two great coaches. It's an intense matchup. Two great basketball teams that are playing very, very well right now. It's going to be a very good game."

Not that Sullinger wants anyone to believe he isn't focused solely on the Jayhawks.

"If we overlook Kansas," he said, "we'll be packing our bags up and heading home."

Just don't expect the losing fans at KU or OSU to consider jumping from the nearest bridge.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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