Last in a “Road to the Final Four” series looking at the hotbeds of college basketball.
College basketball is the sport of choice in Kentucky. Nobody denies that in a state with no professional teams.
But there is a distinct difference between the state’s two storied programs, Louisville and Kentucky. Rick Pitino is well aware of the differences after coaching at both schools and leading them each to national championships.
“[At Kentucky], it’s life or death,” said Pitino, who coached the Wildcats from 1989-97 and has been at Louisville since 2001.
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“Ours [at Louisville] is more of, it’s important but people are going to go home and have a life if we lose. People in Lexington don’t have a life. They’re ready to jump [if you lose].”
More differences exist. Kentucky is a traditional basketball school, playing its home games at revered Rupp Arena.
Louisville is the leader for modern day venues, playing at the pristine KFC Yum! Center.
As Pitino described it, “We are more like a pro team and they’re more like a college team. By that I mean 50 percent of our fan base is not Louisville graduates. They’re living in the ’Ville and rooting for the Cardinals, so we’re the city’s pro team basically.”
The support that Louisville has can be seen in the revenue it generates. The Cardinals are the most valuable men’s team in the country, according to Forbes, which valued them at $38.5 million last year.
Kansas ($32.9 million), North Carolina ($32.8) and Kentucky ($32.1) are next in line.
But the Yum! Center is the driving force behind the Cardinals’ financial success. Overlooking the Ohio River, the 22,090-seat venue sits in the heart of downtown and has been the Cardinals’ home since 2010.
It has all the bells and whistles that come with today’s stadiums and can be considered basketball’s version of AT&T Stadium. But it wasn’t an easy call for the Cardinals to abandon what had become one of the better home courts in the country at Freedom Hall.
Freedom Hall had been home to the Cardinals since the 1956-57 season, and they were 684-141 in that building on the fairgrounds just off campus.
“Freedom Hall was a fabulous place, I loved it and it was identifiable whether you were watching on TV or in person,” said Paul Rogers, the Cardinals’ radio voice for the past 20 years.
“But it had kind of gone by in time, and they needed to get a new arena and the Yum! Center is great. I often say that U of L is Louisville’s NBA team because it’s like an NBA arena and the school gets the same corporate support that an NBA team would get.”
The Cardinals opened the Yum! Center the same way they closed Freedom Hall, with a win.
The final game at Freedom Hall still resonates with every Louisville fan. Kyle Kuric went from a little-known player to a household name by scoring 22 points and starring in the Cardinals’ 78-68 victory over Syracuse.
And, coincidentally, Kuric played a key role in establishing the new Yum! Center as Louisville’s home. The Cardinals opened the venue with an 88-73 victory over Butler, but it wasn’t until later in the season when it was transformed into a true college basketball atmosphere.
“At first, the building was the star,” Rogers said. “People were kind of gasping at the facility like, ‘Wow, how did we do this?’ ”
That all changed on Jan. 15, 2011, against Marquette. The Cardinals were down 18 with less than six minutes left, but put together a furious rally. They trailed by one with time winding down and Kuric somehow went unnoticed into the paint and made an easy backdoor layup to send the Cardinals’ to a 71-70 victory.
That became the Yum! Center’s first signature win.
“That game against Marquette is where the Yum! Center became our place,” Rogers said. “This is now our home court. From then on, the team was the star, not the building.”
Said Phillip Bond, a 22-year-old student: “The new Yum! Center is amazing, and we’re a school that takes a lot of pride in having a good basketball team and a good basketball arena.”
Louisville has certainly become a powerhouse school with its new arena and is having remarkable success under Pitino, a Hall of Fame coach who replaced another Hall of Fame coach in Denny Crum.
The Cardinals have reached the NCAA Tournament in 10 of Pitino’s first 12 seasons, and are headed back there again this season as the defending champions. They are looking for their third consecutive Final Four trip, which would be quite a feat with the unpredictability of the tournament.
The Cardinals will also be one of the more experienced teams going into the tournament and know what it takes to make a run in March.
“We know how battle-tested we are,” senior guard Russ Smith said. “But the target is always going to be on our back with what we’ve done the last two years, so it’s important we go out and play hard and leave it on the floor. We’ve got to earn the respect we deserve again.”
If the Cardinals can pull off a three-peat and get back to the Final Four this season, it would be a Hollywood-type script. After all, the last time the Dallas-Fort Worth area hosted the Final Four was in 1986 ... when Louisville won it all.
That storyline doesn’t make sense to everybody, though.
“That ’86 title was before I was born,” junior wing Wayne Blackshear said, smiling. “But it’d be great to get back to the Final Four. It’s the best feeling once you get there and you want to keep getting back there.”
Added Pitino: “Getting a three-peat would be unusual and quite rewarding, but this season will be as competitive as I’ve seen in 10 years. I look at 15 programs, maybe a few more, that have a legitimate shot at getting there, and I’m not sure if there is a favorite.”