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Fates align as Indiana, Kentucky prepare to renew storied rivalry

Indiana and Kentucky are set to renew their rivalry on Saturday in the NCAA tournament Round of 32, the first time the teams have met since 2012

DES MOINES — At 11:01 p.m. CT on Thursday, a horn sounded, ostensibly marking the end of a basketball game. Everyone knew better. The clocks hit zero at Wells Fargo Arena, but the one that truly mattered began ticking, ticking, ticking to another event in two nights’ time. This was the countdown to a college basketball apocalypse, staged in central Iowa, when the guaranteed end of one team’s season will feel like the end of the whole world.

Say prayers. Make peace with loved ones. Hide sharp objects. Bolt down anything throwable.

Indiana-Kentucky is happening.

“It’s a rivalry because of the history of it, because of the proximity of the two states,” says Hoosiers coach Tom Crean, “but [also] because the two basketball teams have been good when it’s been at its best.”

And we’ll have that again Saturday, in the 57th meeting between these two blood rivals and the first since a Sweet 16 matchup in 2012, thanks to the NCAA tournament bracket legislating a reunion the schools can’t arrange on their own. They got there along slightly different tracks in the first round: Indiana nearly broke the offensive sound barrier in a 99–74 vanquishing of Chattanooga, and Kentucky commemorated Stony Brook’s first appearance in this event by squeezing every oxygen molecule out of the Seawolves in a 85–57 win. But the point is they got there. No lovable underdog stood in the way of this unholy cyclone of venom and angst and passion and more venom.

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The fourth-seeded Wildcats and fifth-seeded Hoosiers also should give us a terrific basketball game, which hilariously seems beside the point. It’s not too hyperbolic to consider this an Elite Eight-level contest played out in the tournament’s first weekend, and the collision of two of the nation’s most efficient offenses—Kentucky is currently first, and Indiana fifth—promises peak entertainment value. Nothing either side did Thursday suggested otherwise. Indiana shot 64.9% against Chattanooga, freshman OG Anunoby unfurled a 360-degree dunk in transition—“I was like, ‘Jesus!’” Hoosiers center Thomas Bryant says—and bellwether senior point guard Yogi Ferrell notched his first career double double with 20 points and 10 dimes. Kentucky subsequently smothered Stony Brook into 26.3% shooting while putting five of its own scorers in double figures.

Change the jerseys, and a game played between these two clubs, at that level, would be a treat regardless.

But there are many entertaining games in the Round of 32 every year. All of them end in agony for one side and its followers. And none of them can exact a world-shattering, generational pain like this one can.

Hoosiers junior Colin Hartman, an Indianapolis native, recalls a manager of his high school basketball team tapping him on the shoulder, during a game, to whisper that Indiana had beaten Kentucky 73–72 on a Christian Watford buzzer beater in 2011. Wildcats junior Derek Willis was a recruit attending that game and watched in amazement as students stormed the floor in delight.

Christian Watford, No. 2, celebrates with his Indiana teammates after beating Kentucky in 2012

Christian Watford, No. 2, celebrates with his Indiana teammates after beating Kentucky in 2012

“It was an insane environment,” Willis said.

On Thursday, when Christian Laettner was revealed as the answer to the “Guess the Great” game on the arena video board during the Kentucky-Stony Brook tilt, Wildcats fans booed lustily. Meanwhile, Hoosiers fans still in the building cheered, reveling in the agonizing NCAA tournament memories stalking their rivals since 1992.

And with about 11 minutes left in Indiana’s throttling of Chattanooga, the first salvo of the forthcoming conflagration appeared to be launched. Ferrell drained his third three-pointer of the night, spun around and celebrated with a bow-and-arrow pantomime, a move all but trademarked by Kentucky freshman star Jamal Murray.

“I’ve had many bow-and-arrows,” Ferrell said in the locker room afterwards, trying to defuse the notion of message-sending before it bubbled up.

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But isn’t that what’s great about this gift from the gods of March? Even if Ferrell is being completely truthful, isn’t it great that this game allows you to imagine he’s not?

We are forced to imagine it, though, because none of the players on these rosters have ever competed in an Indiana-Kentucky game, and because both sides can be stiflingly circumspect about every word leaving their mouths anyway, there was little actual flame-fanning in the locker rooms.

“We’re not gong to prepare any differently than we have all year,” Hartman said. “Nobody is going to look at it any differently from our perspective. We have to approach it the same way with the same mentality and the same diligence.”

Said Kentucky guard Tyler Ulis: “I really don’t know much about the rivalry ... To us it’s another game.”

To them, maybe. To tens of thousands of others who will eyeball the Saturday evening affair, not so much.

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So here it comes, no matter how stubborn the schools have been about preventing it. Why can’t two rivals separated by about 180 miles get together on this? Kentucky wants neutral-site games and Indiana doesn’t, is the general idea.

“I didn’t want to play home–and–home,” Wildcats coach John Calipari said. “I didn’t want to go there, and they didn’t want to have to come to us. So that ended the series.”

But what Kentucky and Indiana want don’t matter anymore. On Saturday, the college basketball world gets to sit back and watch the Armageddon for which it has been waiting.

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Maybe these teams do not have a fevered hatred for each other built in. That happens when you don’t see each other, even though you live in the same neighborhood. But that shouldn’t dull the tension. Each team was already straining Thursday, prodded and pushed even as it smashed an opponent into submission. Crean demanded his players guard a Chattanooga inbounds attempt out of a timeout … while Indiana had a 17-point lead.

“Get up here!” Crean barked at his players. “We’re not giving them this!”

When Ferrell subbed out late in the game, he received a standing ovation from the Indiana fans behind the bench and then an extended, emphatic lecture from his head coach.

“The gist of what he told me was, lead these guys all the way,” Ferrell said. “We have to be a 40-minute team.”

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In the nightcap, Calipari received a bench warning in the second half, then harangued referee Pat Driscoll as if the national championship trophy were at stake with every whistle. The Wildcats were up 30 at the time.

“I told [my players], you have to keep growing throughout this tournament,” Calipari said. “It’s not playing consistent. It’s getting better.”

It doesn’t get much better than Kentucky and Indiana, going at each other once again, in what feels like a matter of basketball life and death. Calipari concurred that it was the sort of game that deserved to be staged a week or two down the line. It was unfortunate it had to happen this early, he mused.

“But it is what it is,” the Wildcats coach said.

And it is going to be something else.