Kentucky, Louisville finally arrive

INDIANAPOLIS -- It began with a round of Irish whiskey. Jameson, to be exact.

Louisville had just toppled  Saint Louis in the third round to secure a slot in the Sweet 16, the 12th appearance for Rick Pitino. To commemorate the achievement, a Cardinals booster mingling in the lobby ordered shots at the bar in the DoubleTree hotel in Orlando, Fla., and proposed a toast "to the coach who is 11-0 in the Sweet 16."

But Pitino, standing nearby as his team awaited word from the NCAA that its charter flight was ready for departure, seemed baffled by the gesture.

"He said, 'I am [11-0]?'" recalled Drew Deener, a Louisville play-by-play broadcaster and local radio host.

There's an aura of bewilderment hovering over the entire Louisville- Kentucky encounter at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Friday, too.

How did we get here?

Of all the seasons when this could have happened, this wasn't supposed to be the one. Everything that unfolded in the weeks leading up to the NCAA tourney made this pairing improbable, it seemed.

This is not 2012, when both teams willed themselves into the Final Four. This postseason affair -- another installment of the fiery rivalry -- wasn't orchestrated by destiny as much as by chance.

It just happened. Rabbit in the hat. Poof.

It seemed possible in the beginning of the season, when the two teams were top-three squads, but then appeared unlikely late in the season. Louisville has lost one game since Jan. 30 but lacked the résumé to warrant a top-three seed. The Cardinals certainly had juice, but if they couldn't handle Kentucky (the Cardinals suffered a 73-66 loss to the Wildcats on Dec. 28), Memphis or  Cincinnati, how would they compete for a national title?

The Wildcats, in spurts, looked like the juggernauts they've become in recent weeks (days, maybe), but Kentucky ended up in the No. 8 versus No. 9 game in the tourney's opening weekend. The Wildcats had played some good teams but ended most of those games without a win. And how long can a program thrive on potential alone?

Both squads were tossed into the Midwest Region, the toughest section in the field. Kentucky versus Louisville in the Sweet 16? Maybe, but the obstacles surpassed the possibility.

Louisville gets by  Manhattan and Saint Louis and Kentucky beats  Kansas State and  Wichita State? C'mon.

"I felt like Louisville would advance, but I thought Wichita State would beat Kentucky," said Rex Chapman, a former Kentucky and NBA guard. "I just felt like Wichita State's maturity would win out."

But Kentucky defeated Kansas State and top seed Wichita State on its way to the Sweet 16. And Louisville wrestled with Manhattan and Saint Louis to earn its slot in Indianapolis and a matchup with its Magneto. These two squads engage in a war each season that affects the entire region. That's predictable, though.

This is relatively spontaneous.

The buildup to Friday's game was surprising, considering the commotion each program overcame in 2013-14.

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