Kentuckiana again focal point of college hoops
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- It's always been easy for basketball fans living in this part of the country to find a good game. There are 15 national championship banners hanging in three campus arenas within about two hours of each other.
They've been spoiled by Indiana, Louisville and Kentucky -- all just a short ride along Interstate 64 or 65.
But never like this.
For the first time the Hoosiers, Cardinals and Wildcats start the season ranked 1-2-3 in the Top 25.
Welcome to Kentuckiana.
The corridor along the Ohio River is once again the focal point of college hoops -- rekindling memories of its heyday back in the 1970s and 1980s. The last time Indiana, Louisville and Kentucky were ranked in the top five was 32 years ago. And it's been 37 years since they finished the 1975 season rounding out the top four behind UCLA.
All three schools reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament in 1975. Kentucky ended Indiana's perfect season with a 92-90 victory to advance to the Final Four, along with Louisville. The Cardinals lost to UCLA in the semifinals and then the Bruins knocked off the Wildcats for the title.
That year was the highlight of Kentuckiana -- until now.
"If you're a fan in this area, even if you don't like someone it doesn't get any better than what you have around here," said former Louisville coach Denny Crum, who led the Cardinals to titles in 1980 and '86.
"Fans here are treated to something very special because people are always talking about these three teams. Right here is the top college basketball in the country."
The fans are some of the most passionate in the country. They are nearly as territorial about their favorite team as they are knowledgeable about the game. That's especially true about Big Blue Nation, the throng of Wildcat faithful whose sheer numbers seem to irritate their neighbors as much as their team's success.
Even across the Ohio River in Jeffersonville, Ind. -- an area affectionately called the "sunny side of Louisville" -- where Kentuckiana thrives with plenty of Louisville red among the Hoosier crimson, and the blue of the Wildcats stands out.
That doesn't sit well with Indiana fan Ernest Brown, 63, though he's more tolerant of Cardinals fans than Wildcats fans.
"That burns me up," Brown said of the UK paraphernalia he sees. "There are so many Kentucky fans, you wonder why they just don't move there. (But) when the (Cardinals) lose, yeah, they're down. They're not making 500 excuses. ... It's just a different kind of people on the same side of the river. I don't understand it."
Still, beneath the fans' dislike for one another sits a mutual respect -- albeit begrudgingly --for all three teams.
Kentucky rolled to its eighth NCAA title last year with tournament victories over Indiana and Louisville led by freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The Wildcats and coach John Calipari have replaced that group with another talented rookie class that includes Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein and Nerlens Noel. But Kentucky begins the season in the polls behind Indiana and Louisville, which return veteran rosters.
Former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall says it all just adds to the excitement in Kentuckiana.
"It's great what Indiana has done with keeping their recruits and it's been good for Louisville," said Hall, who led the Wildcats to three Final Fours and the 1978 championship. "But Cal is in a situation all his own with these one-and-dones. I think it's exciting for our fans."
Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, the former Indiana All-American, said having the Hoosiers competitive again is a big part.
"Kentucky has always been extremely good and competitive and Louisville has always had good players and a good program," said Thomas, who led the Hoosiers to the 1981 national title. "But Indiana has always prided itself on the purity of the game. So, I give more weight to Indiana because of what it represents in terms of basketball."
There was a time in Kentuckiana that debate would have been settled on the court in the Big Four Classic.
Louisville, Kentucky, Indiana and Notre Dame used to battle in Indianapolis every December from 1987 to 1990. That event disbanded for various reasons and Louisville hasn't played Indiana since 2003. Though the Cardinals and Wildcats will play here on Dec. 29, the Hoosiers announced last spring they wouldn't play Kentucky this season because they were already playing too many games away from Bloomington.
Former Louisville star Darrell Griffith leads a chorus of laments for the teams to work something out.
"I don't think it's that hard to play each other because Louisville and Kentucky play every year," said Griffith, known as "Dr. Dunkenstein" when he led Louisville to the 1980 title. "You just do it. The fans would love it. The players would love it."
Calipari, whose Wildcats lost at Indiana last December on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, said he didn't want the series to end.
"I wanted to play those Indiana games and I thought they'd be great games in Indianapolis but that's fine," he said. "We're doing what most teams are doing, playing a schedule that fits."
Kentucky radio analyst Mike Pratt and former Indiana All-American Brian Evans say it's just wrong that the teams don't play each other.
"I can appreciate the rivalry because I've lived in the middle of it and have known so many Louisville and Indiana players," said Pratt, a Wildcats Hall of Famer who played at UK from 1967-1970. "You observe how they talk about it. There are a lot of armchair quarterbacks out there, but that's what makes playing around here so special. They care almost to a fault."
Said Evans, "These games need to be played. Too many fans want to see it happen."
Especially with Kentuckiana back in the national spotlight.