Louisville has a lot to prove against Kentucky

By Steve Ginsburg

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Louisville can go a long way to elevating its status in the basketball-crazed Bluegrass State if it can defeat rival Kentucky in the opening game of the Final Four on Saturday at the Superdome.

Top seeded Kentucky is more talented than its intrastate rival and sports a richer tradition, but has a young team with three freshman and two sophomores in the starting line-up.

Cardinals coach Rick Pitino said the glare of the national spotlight can do strange things.

"You never know when the ball is thrown up in the Final Four, who is going to handle and overcome the nervousness of playing in a Final Four and who's going to be totally focused in and not bothered by it. You never know.

"There are some players I've coached in the past I thought would be really cool and calm, and they weren't, and others I thought wouldn't be were. You really can't tell by their demeanor before a game or how they act.

"Early on in the game if guys make shots, their confidence rises, it just becomes a basketball game. When they don't make shots, they start to press. So you really never know."

The winner will face either Kansas or Ohio State for the national championship on Monday night.

While the Kansas-Ohio State match-up features a pair of gifted teams with deep traditions, the revelers on nearby Bourbon Street were more vocal about the Battle of Kentucky.

John Calipari's Kentucky team boasts fans statewide, even in Louisville, while the Cardinals' stronghold is centered around its campus about 75 miles west of Lexington.

"The state is unique in that Kentucky fans are throughout the state," said Calipari, who sports a 100-14 record since arriving in Lexington three years ago.

"You don't have many North Carolina fans in Durham or many Duke fans in Chapel Hill or UCLA fans in Sacramento. It's just different. Our fans are throughout.

"That doesn't disrespect Louisville at all. They have their fan base, there's no question about it."

On the flip side, the Cardinals are just 30-9 but are now riding an eight-game winning streak after winning the Big East Tournament as a seventh seed with a 50-44 victory over Cincinnati.

It took state legislators to get involved some 30 years ago to get Kentucky and Louisville to commit to playing in the regular season every year. This is the first time they are playing each other in the national semi-finals.

"We are both in the Final Four and neither team wants to lose," said Kentucky freshman guard Marquis Teague. "We are in the same position, we all want to come out and win.

"We expect them to come out swinging and we will come out swinging too."

Louisville senior guard Chris Smith said he's not bothered that bookmakers have made the Cardinals, seeking their third national crown, a nine-point underdog.

"It doesn't hurt at all," he said. "It actually feels good because the underdog most of the time comes out on top."

(Editing by Alison Wildey)