The Louisville Courier-Journal summed it up best with the banner “Civil War” on its Monday front page. Despite a rivalry that has been renewed each year since these teams met in a 1983 regional final, Louisville and Kentucky have never met with more on the line.

Fans of the winner will glow with anticipation of cutting down the nets Monday night and earn bragging rights for the foreseeable future. The losers can expect at least a year of taunts from their friends, co-workers and even family who back the other squad.

But it’s not just Cardinals and Wildcats who can appreciate this game’s drama; from a national perspective, this game is as compelling as it is in the Commonwealth.

Two larger-than-life coaches will pace the sidelines. Kentucky’s John Calipari has brought the nation’s top recruiting class to Lexington three years in a row. His methods are controversial though, and have caused the NCAA to vacate two Final Four trips he made during stints at Massachusetts and Memphis.

Some of that controversy, according to a 2011 Sports Illustrated article, stems from his rivalry with tomorrow night’s opponent, Rick Pitino. Calipari blames Pitino for rumors over Calipari’s recruiting tactics when they coached in the Big East — Pitino was the head coach at Providence, while Calipariwas an assistant at Pitt — three decades ago.

After decades on the national scene, Pitino was said to be past his prime only a few weeks ago. Now he’s back to college basketball’s championship weekend for the sixth time. The fact that three of those trips came at Kentucky, where he coached before moving to the NBA, makes this grudge match all the more enticing.

After a miserable run with the Celtics, Pitino returned to the Bluegrass State to take the head coaching gig at his old school’s biggest rival. Although he took a surprising team to the Final Four in 2005,Pitino’s best shot at winning the title seemed to be with Terrence Williams, Earl Clark and company in 2009 before that team faltered against Michigan State in the Elite Eight.

Until this tournament, it had been all downhill from there for Pitino, who faced embarrassment on and off the court: two first-round exits in the NCAA tournament and an all-too-public personal scandal that led to an extortion case. But after badly underperforming in the regular season, Louisville has caught fire in the last three weeks. The Cards won the Big East tournament title under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden, and they’ve kept that momentum going in the Big Dance. They got sweet revenge against the Spartans in the Sweet 16 before holding off a Florida squad coached by Pitinopupil Billy Donovan to punch their ticket to the Final Four.

That makes the upstart Cardinals the polar opposite of the Wildcats, whose seven McDonald’s All-Americans have spearheaded a 36-2 campaign. The freshman talent stretches from power forward Anthony Davis — the nation’s leading shotblocker at nearly five a game — and fellow forward MichaelKidd-Gilchrist, to slick point guard Marquis Teague. Sophomores Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones are just as good as UK’s trio of likely one-and-dones.

While no team in the country comes close to Kentucky’s array of skilled players, this isn’t quite a David and Goliath matchup. Louisville has a solid roster made up of experienced players. Junior point guard Peyton Siva is erratic but seems to have turned a corner. Sophomore guard Russ Smith can also get out of control, but is more than capable of taking over a game.

Freshman power forward Chane Behanan has emerged as a viable inside option when sophomore center Gorgui Dieng gets into foul trouble. And in one of the Final Four’s best stories, senior guard Kyle Kuric has elevated the level of his game over his four years in Louisville and is a sharpshooter from three-point land.

With tremendous talent, megawatt coaches, storied programs and the biggest stage of the year, tomorrow’s game might be the best college basketball game in decades. It harkens back to the 1992 East Regional final, where Christian Laettner got Duke past Pitino’s Kentucky squad in a 104-103 game for the ages.

This Final Four matchup is just as compelling, but it won’t be that sort of high-scoring affair. These teams have had a particularly rocky relationship ever since Calipari came to Lexington. When the Cards and Wildcats met at Rupp Arena on Dec. 31, Louisville was whistled for 29 fouls. Kentucky secured its seven-point win at the charity stripe, where the Wildcats went 32-of-43 and the Cardinals just 18-of-27.

Although Kentucky fans rightfully argue their team has grown since that game, Louisville has improved even more, especially once the team got healthy. This allowed Pitino to reset the Cardinals’ defense to rely more on stifling pressure and closing out on the perimeter.

That defense should neutralize Calipari’s trademark dribble-drive motion offense, but Davis will outmuscle Dieng in the post. With the Unibrow in command down low, Louisville’s perimeter shooters have their work cut out for them. But the Cardinals have proven it’s doable, rising to the occasion eight times this postseason.

The NBA’s slogan is “where amazing happens.” This NCAA tournament’s slogan might be “where unbelievable happens.” Tomorrow night, a team with an old coach and ragtag bunch of experienced players is in with a shot against an amazing bunch of NBA prospects. It’ll be unbelievable and, hopefully, unforgettable.

Evan Hollander is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service and a deputy sports editor for The Hoya. TOP OF THE KEY appears every Friday.

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