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March 30, 2012NEW ORLEANS - Also, there's a basketball game.
It would be easy enough - given the dissection this week of the basketball programs at Kentucky and Louisville and the rivalry between them - to forget that there's an actual on-court contest to be played Saturday between the Wildcats and Cardinals.
The week isn't just a chance to examine what a Kentucky NCAA title run would mean to college basketball; or whether you should or should not feel sorry for Kentucky fans.
It's not just about a clash of urban and rural fan bases or how Rick Pitino - who, as you may have heard, has coached at both schools - compares one job to the other.
Kentucky and Louisville will meet on Saturday at the Final Four. The winner plays for a national championship - UK's eighth or U of L's third - on Monday.
"If you want to buy into the drama, then you buy into it," UK coach John Calipari said. "If you want to play basketball, we're playing a terrific basketball team tomorrow at 5 (p.m. central). That's all we're dealing with. It's another basketball game for us and our team.
"I know the fans on both sides are going crazy, and that's great. That's part of why you do this thing. But we're not buying into it. I don't believe their team is buying into it."
Kentucky opened the week with a goal of preparing for Saturday's game while tuning out the hype that was sure to boil over from perhaps the most hotly anticipated Final Four game ever.
And with one day to go, the Wildcats consider themselves largely successful.
"We're letting the fans take care of all that," forward Anthony Davis said on Friday. "We're not worried about the UK-Louisville rivalry. We're just out here to have fun, play a basketball game."
It hasn't been easy to block out the buzz, mostly because reporters covering the event logically have fired rivalry questions at both teams all week. To any casual observer, the longstanding feud between the Cats and the Cards - the heat and history of the "Dream Game" - is the most logical angle.
But by Friday, there was a fatigue with the topic.
Cards guard Chris Smith said that for the fans of Saturday's loser "it's their funeral, really."
But Louisville's Jared Swopshire pointed out to a reporter that the Cardinals have relatively few Kentuckians on their roster - the same is true of the Wildcats - and that the rivalry pales in comparison to a shot at playing on the season's last day.
"It's a rivalry and stuff like that," Kentucky's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist said. "But it's the Final Four. That's it. That's what it means to me; it's the Final Four."
That supersedes even the most fervent rivalry.
"We want to beat them badly," Pitino said. "They want to beat us badly. Not because it's Louisville, not because it's Kentucky, but because it's the right to play for the national championship."
There may be brawls on Bourbon Street and trash-talking on Twitter. But for the participants in Saturday's game, the three most important words of the week have been "just another game."
Of course it's more than that.
It means more to the Kentucky fan who works in Louisville or the Cardinals fan who attends UK because of the grief that will follow a loss. And it means more to the players because it's on college basketball's biggest stage.
But Calipari said the Wildcats "have not prepared any different for this game than any game this season."
"We believe the game is going to be played fast," Calipari said. "We think they're going to press. Some of it man, some of it trapping. We think they're going to be in a zone and do some trapping out of it, do some man-to-man, do some switching out of it. We worked on it."
See, a basketball game.
That's why we're all here. The time for talking has passed. And nobody much seems to mind.
"We all said we wish the game was today," Davis said. "Instead of practicing all the time, let's go ahead and play. I'm very anxious. I'm just ready for the game to start."