By Steve Ginsburg

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - One of college basketball's most passionate rivalries enters the stratosphere Saturday when top-seeded Kentucky hosts Louisville in the semi-finals of the NCAA Tournament.

Kentucky (36-2) is the most talented squad in the 68-team tournament but Louisville (30-9) has won eight straight and when intensity runs this deep, anything can happen.

The winner will face either Ohio State (31-7) or Kansas (31-6), who square off in the other semi-final, in Monday's national championship decider.

Kentucky knocked off Louisville 69-62 in December but that game has long been forgotten by both schools, located less than 80 miles apart in the basketball-mad state.

State legislators got involved nearly 30 years ago to get the rival schools to play each year during the regular season but this is the first time the two powerhouses have met in the Final Four.

"It's both fun intensity and a lot of things that go with it. But it's so much more meaningful now because what's at stake."

Kentucky boasts several players who will be wearing NBA jerseys in the near future. Freshmen Anthony Davis, the consensus player of the year, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist could make the leap into the pro ranks after the season.

"If you're a player that's thinking of going to the NBA right away, Kentucky's going to be on your immediate list."

Kentucky coach John Calipari was convinced Pitino would try something to confuse his young squad.

"With the five days to prepare, I would imagine they've come up with a few things to try to, I don't want to use the word 'trick', but to confuse a team that starts two freshmen and three sophomores. I have no doubt that he has.

"Probably did some things in the zone. May have done something on the out of bounds defense. There may be something in the press that he hasn't done this year that they're going to do different in this game."

"It was unfortunate that he didn't get to play in the game in December. By the same token, I think that probably helped us in the long run that he wasn't out there."

Sullinger and teammate Deshaun Thomas will go toe-to-toe with Kansas's 6-foot-10 (2.08m) standout Thomas Robinson and 7-footer (2.13m) Jeff Withey in an enticing front court match-up.

"I wanted to go against him (in December)," said Robinson, who averages 17.7 points and 11.8 rebounds. "He's a great player. Every time you get a challenge like that, you want to take it on. I knew I would get my chance Saturday."

"I kind of like it, to be honest," Jayhawks coach Bill Self said.

"We have kind of flown under the radar, by Kansas standards of late, which I think has been very healthy for a team that's just trying to find themselves."

(Editing by Julian Linden)