Saturday’s Final Four showdown between Kentucky and Louisville induces a condition psychologists refer to as cognitive dissonance, wherein the mind wrestles with itself over inconsistent thoughts or feelings.
On the one hand, the commonwealth of Kentucky professes to be pleased that two of its finest teams comprise half the remaining field in competition for the NCAA championship – best of the best in college basketball. It couldn’t have been better unless they’d wound up facing each other in the final game – the one that takes place Monday night in New Orleans. It also couldn’t have been worse, because some Kentuckians are going to be torn between statewide pride in the team that prevails and loyalty to the one they really hoped would win.
Frankfort, a mere hop down Interstate 64 from either school, harbors both Cardinal and Wildcat faithful. Its politicians, from the governor on down, generally try not to lean too far either way. But despite its purported cosmopolitanism, the state capital remains a small town at heart. Hordes of Kentuckians from the western lake country to the eastern hills root every year for someone – anyone, really – to deny big-city boys the trophy in the state high school basketball tournament, not to mention the college playoffs.
This anti-urban impulse can create turmoil in the minds of those who instinctively cheer the over-achievers in life and basketball. If you hate big-city bluster but love spunky competitors, you have a choice to make here. Louisville, a No. 4 seed in the NCAA regional it won, is a classic underdog, having clawed its way to victory last week in a comeback win over Florida. Kentucky, by contrast, is almost everyone’s top dog, er, Cat. Odds makers consider it a de facto professional team in college uniforms, an invincible force, barring some gutsy David (Louisville, Kansas, Ohio State) who stops Goliath in his tracks.
Kentucky fans appreciate upstarts, too. Their grudging admiration of the Cardinals will likely be subdued on Saturday, but they’ve paid almost as much tribute to glorious losers over the years as to the seven UK teams that won it all. The greatest were “Rupp’s Runts,” the 1966 five that began the season with exceedingly low expectations and got all the way to the final game of the NCAA tournament before falling to Texas Western. “Glory Road,” a 2006 movie, turned the Cinderella story into a race parable because a predominantly black team came out of nowhere to defeat all-white Kentucky – overlooking the fact that the Runts were Cinderellas themselves.
More recently, great things were expected from Kentucky’s talent-packed squad of two years ago. It delivered, for the most part, but got knocked out of the tournament before the final round. Last year’s Wildcats began with less anticipation of success and surprised almost everyone by becoming a contender, then fell short in the semifinal game.
Widespread adulation of this year’s team has to worry UK fans who know from experience that attracting NBA-caliber players doesn’t guarantee the ultimate triumph. Which brings up another matter of inner conflict for those of us who wish college basketball could somehow get back to keeping athletes on board for four years instead of sending the best of them off to the pros after one or two seasons. If UK boosters’ dream comes true over the next three days, it will affirm that young men barely out of high school really can lead their team to a national championship. The “one-and-done” phenomenon will only grow as others emulate John Calipari’s recruiting style.
Sometimes cognitive dissonance is a hazard even in victory.