Its not as though a Memphis-Louisville college basketball game needs an angle for intrigue. Having squared off 77 times since 1948, with many of those games deciding conference championships and thrusting players into the national spotlight, the Tigers and Cardinals have the kind of rivalry that remains heated and more than a little emotional on both sides, regardless of current records or rosters.
But not since the halcyon days of the Metro Conference in the 1980s -- when Louisville reached the Final Four four times and the Tigers once themselves -- has this contest held the kind of magnetism it will Wednesday night at The Pyramid.
Start with the coaches. If you dont find them in the pages of Sports Illustrated, you might check GQ. From their Italian names, to their jet black hair, to their emotive -- all the while stylish -- displays on the sidelines, John Calipari and Rick Pitino are the poster boys for the modern-day, larger-than-the-program-itself college hoops coach.
Each with roots in the northeast, each with failed NBA ventures on his resume, each with his share of controversy trailing from Boston to Providence to Amherst, Massachusetts, to East Rutherford, New Jersey, now to Dixie . . . these two are twelve pounds of personality in a ten-pound sack. God forbid they ever allow Cincinnatis Bob Huggins in the same room. (If this confluence ever does happen, I want the room bugged.)
Calipari and Pitino have a history on the court, both as college coaches and in the NBA. College fans will remember a rather epic confrontation in the 1996 Final Four semifinals between Cals 35-1 UMass Minutemen and Pitinos 32-2 Kentucky Wildcats. Kentucky knocked off Marcus Camby and company, 81-74, then won an anticlimactic championship game against Syracuse.
By the fall of 97, each coach ran a franchise in
the NBAs Atlantic Division, Calipari taking the Nets to the 98 playoffs, Pitino not fairing quite as well with his Boston Celtics.
And how about the Wagner angle? If theres been a pinnacle to the long Memphis-Louisville series, it was certainly between 1981 and 1986 when the majority of games featured not one, but two All Americans: Louisvilles Milt Wagner and Memphis Keith Lee. Over 11 meetings during this period, Wagner averaged 15.5 points as the Cards won seven times.
Wagner played in three Metro Conference tournament title games against
Memphis, the Tigers taking the first (82), the Cardinals winning in 83 and 86 (a game in which Wagner poured in 34 points). The fourth leading
scorer in Louisville history, Wagners jersey number (20) was retired two years ago.
Now 16 years after his last game against Memphis, Milt sits on the Tiger bench, the coordinator of basketball operations for Caliparis staff. And, oh yeah, the Tigers star freshman happens to be Milts son, Dajuan (junior has shaved the zero off his dads jersey number). Think Louisvilles army of fans wouldnt like to take some wind out of the Wagner familys Bluff City sails? Any doubt that Pitino has mentioned the Wagner name as he motivates his troops for an upset?
The Tigers will take the floor Wednesday night for the nationally televised battle well in command of Conference USAs National Division. Louisville, meanwhile, sits in the American Division, shadowed darkly by Huggins top-ten Bearcats. If theres a blemish on this historic rivalry, its the fact that the two schools no longer meet twice a year, so local fans can only catch those devil-red uniforms once every two seasons. All the more reason there seems to be a premium -- and an extra dose or two of intrigue -- to Tigers-Cardinals, No. 78.