LOUISVILLE, Ky. – For about six weeks, life was glorious for Louisville fans.
They watched their Cardinals coalesce into a team that seemed capable of defending the national championship, right on Rick Pitino's customary February schedule. As that metamorphosis was ongoing, there was disarray down the road in Lexington. Archrival Kentucky was falling apart, the preseason No. 1 team losing four of its last seven regular-season games and not even looking good in the games it did win.
Cards fans contentedly sipped their schadenfreude cocktails (forget bourbon, this is the state drink during basketball season). They were certain that the high-stakes, highly toxic annual battle for Bluegrass bragging rights was over. They had won.
Now they're wondering who spiked their cocktail with the arsenic of angst.
Kentucky not only is back, it is in Louisville's way. And a once-chesty fan base has turned into Card-carrying pessimists.
As the two programs that have dominated college basketball for three years running prepare to meet in Indianapolis Friday in the Sweet 16, the moods of the warring tribes have darn near reversed. Big Blue is buoyant and optimistic, vigorously spinning a finger-pointing dumpster fire of a season into the group-hugging, feel-good story of the year. And after two stressful and difficult NCAA tourney victories, how are the Cardinals feeling?
To use the phrase coined by native son Hunter S. Thompson, welcome to Fear and Loathing in Louisville.
"The anxiety is definitely there," said Drew Deener, morning radio host on ESPN 680 in Louisville and TV play-by-play voice of the Cardinals. "I think the Louisville fans felt safe in the last month to proclaim [Kentucky's] season dead. They shanked 'em and turned the knife.
"Now the zombie has come back to life. There's John Calipari coming out of the tomb."
Yes, there's Cal from the Crypt, smirking as he burrows back under the skin of a fan base that has come to dislike him every bit as much as Kentucky's dislikes Pitino. And there is his personal record against Rick, tilting heavily of late in Cal's favor. And there are his seven McDonald's All-Americans, with all that size and all the momentum seized by taking down undefeated Wichita State, poised to pounce on a vertically challenged Louisville team that skillfully camouflaged its limitations for the past six weeks. And there are all those Kentucky fans, in from the ledges and suddenly ready to rumble.
Thus we have the oddest of NCAA tournament dynamics. In every other circumstance, a No. 4 seed would be thrilled that a No. 8 did the dirty work of taking out the No. 1 in the round of 32. Bring on the 8 seed, and the easier Sweet 16 matchup.
But not here. Not now.
"I wish we were playing someone else," acknowledged Sean Deeley, a 46-year-old Louisville resident and Cardinals fan from the crib.
[Related: Your guide to navigating the Sweet 16]
Undefeated Wichita State would have been the more palatable matchup, even after the Shockers pushed Louisville to the brink last year in the Final Four. There is far less psychological baggage associated with playing them, far less emotional risk and far fewer NBA draft picks to face.
Kentucky has the latent talent of a No. 1 seed and is finally playing like it. Louisville has overachieved to keep this season at a high level after dismissing power forward Chane Behanan and losing guard Kevin Ware to a medical redshirt in late December. And don't forget this critical dynamic: The matchup is in the Sweet 16, where a season's aftertaste hasn't yet been decided.
For 95 percent of college basketball, making it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament is victory enough. Anything thereafter is gravy. At places like Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky and Louisville, this is closer to a bare minimum. Especially after experiencing multiple Final Fours recently.
Kentucky made the Final Four in 2011 and '12, Louisville in 2012 and '13. In 2012 they played against each other, in a game that was epically hyped – anytime you have two dialysis patients in a fistfight over a game, there go your headlines.
But for Louisville fans, losing to Kentucky in that Final Four figures to be far less painful than a loss would be this Friday. Then, the Cards had done enough to establish that season as a huge success. And they were a pronounced underdog against a runaway freight train of a Kentucky team.
"The difference that year in New Orleans, from Thursday to Saturday it was all red," Deener said. "The fans took off Thursday and Friday to be there, because they knew they were probably going home. Kentucky fans showed up Saturday because they were taking Monday and Tuesday off. They planned on winning it all."
That's the way it played out. Louisville gave Kentucky a good game before relenting, and the Wildcats won the title over Kansas two nights later. Pretty much everyone got what they expected from that weekend.
"No question, we were playing with house money at that point," Deeley said. "I'd say we have a little more pressure this time. We're the higher seed, and their season was in the toilet."
Louisville is a five-point favorite, prompting Deener to declare "Vegas likes their team a lot more than even their own fans do." But the fans are viewing this through a different lens – one part physical and one part psychological.
Kentucky is the last team Louisville wanted to see – not just because of the rivalry aspect, but because of the particular matchups of team vs. team and coach vs. coach.
The Cardinals lost to the Wildcats by seven in Rupp Arena in December – and while playing on a neutral floor should help, it does not change the key dynamic in that game: Kentucky smothered Louisville with its length. The Wildcats were a plus-seven on the backboard and shot eight more free throws, in part by pounding the ball inside.
And since then what has happened? Louisville has gotten shorter and Kentucky has gotten taller.
The Cardinals lost the powerful, 6-foot-8 Behanan and limited the role of 6-10 freshman center Mangok Mathiang. He played 22 minutes against Kentucky and hasn't gotten that much playing time in any game since.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats have made a much bigger weapon out of 7-footer Dakari Johnson. He played eight minutes against the Cards and has averaged more than 17 in March. At times Calipari has played Johnson and fellow 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein together.
Pitino has said several times this year that his team is at a particular disadvantage against big teams. That disadvantage may be exacerbated by the presence of Calipari, who has vexed Pitino like no one else over the past five years.
Cal arrived in Lexington with a Pitino obsession. Since then he has given Pitino a Calipari Problem. The record is 5-1 Cal on the court, and he holds an edge when they've gone head-to-head for recruits as well (the most recent is 2014 star Trey Lyles of Indianapolis, who chose the 'Cats over the Cards a few months ago).
So even Pitino's statistical advantage at this level of the tournament – he's an amazing 11-0 in Sweet 16 games, including a win over Calipari 22 years ago – runs up against his recent record against Cal. If his nemesis ends that streak, well, it's one more thing Louisville fans will have to hear about all offseason from their Big Blue antagonists.
Sean Deeley knows all this. All the stats, all the history, all the baggage and bragging rights in play.
He's been steeped in this rivalry all his life, staunchly on the red side. And he has the pants to prove it.
For a few years, Deeley broke out his khaki pants covered in Louisville Cardinal birdhead logos for all the big events. The gaudy britches became a good-luck talisman, worn to the last game in Freedom Hall (an upset of Syracuse), the Sugar Bowl upset of Florida, the 2012 and '13 Big East tournament championship games in Madison Square Garden, and, of course, the '13 national title game in Atlanta. Deeley and his pants were there for all of it.
After winning it all last April, he decided it couldn't get any better than that. He retired the pants. They'll eventually be framed and put on the wall in his suburban Louisville man cave, memorializing a golden run.
Without the talisman, he's relying more on blind faith. But he's talking a good game.
"Honestly, I think Kentucky's not real thrilled about playing us either," said Deeley, co-owner of D & W Silks, a silk flower and interior foliage business in Louisville. "This is a stage their guys haven't been on before, and our guys have. They have their height and length, but I'll take some Luke Hancock and some Russ Smith. I'll take our seniors.
"They're peaking, or starting to peak, which I don't like. But they've lost 10 games – it's not like they've played great all year. And there's nobody I'd rather go into this game with than Pitino. He's done a hell of a job with this team and he's a hell of a tournament coach."
Around that point, Deeley stopped and laughed. "Maybe I'm trying to help myself with some positive reinforcement," he said. "It won't be fun if we come out on the short end, I can tell you that."