"I'm happy we didn't run out of road before we got it or run out of runway before we finally figured it out," Calipari said.
But Louisville is different now, too. This Cardinals defense (third in adjusted efficiency, per Pomeroy) has that same Mike Tyson-like blitzkrieg approach that has helped the team pummel opponents since late January. Jones and Smith have the oomph Louisville will need to defend its national crown. Hancock is healthy. And Harrell (14.0 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 1.4 BPG) is just scary.
Beyond the rivalry and the first game this season -- which Kentucky won with ease even though Randle missed most of the second half with cramps -- this is a matchup that exemplifies everything this tournament is supposed to represent, everything that draws us to the perennial frenzy.
It doesn't matter who you were. Only who you are now.
"I know we have a very good basketball team," Pitino said. "They have a very good basketball team. It should be a heck of a game."
And the chatter usually ends right there.
We'd discuss the specifics, the matchups, the coaches, the stars, and, then, we'd just let the hardwood be the jury.
But this isn't a game. It's Louisville versus Kentucky. Loser goes home and faces a vortex of torture --- via friends, co-workers and social media -- until the programs face off again next season.
The gravity of the moment has been recognized by both coaches, who want to minimize it. Calipari told reporters Thursday that he has advised his players to focus on the game and avoid the buzz.
"This week, what I told them [was] don't watch any TV," Calipari said. "Watch the History Channel, watch Biography, watch the Military Channel, watch movies and don't read anything. Don't look at anything."
Smith said the rivalry is secondary to the real stakes.
"It is a rivalry game," Smith said. "There's no way around it. But, at the end of the day ... it's much bigger than a rivalry. It's a Sweet 16 game."
The idea that one enemy will dictate the other's postseason fate is significant.
Either Louisville will dismiss Kentucky's youngsters and preserve Pitino's undefeated record in the Sweet 16 or the Wildcats will end the college careers of Smith and Hancock in a strange, unexpected sendoff that could prove Kentucky just needed ample opportunity to grow. These possibilities are the only things folks in Lexington, Ky., and Louisville, Ky., are talking about right now.
"It sets the town in motion," Deener said. "It sets the conversation. You can't go on Facebook. You could say, 'Gee, it's warm outside' and you're three comments away from 'Screw you. UK sucks' or 'Screw you. Louisville sucks.' I bet at the nail salon you'd be having conversations about it."
On Friday night, shots and drinks will be poured throughout the state of Kentucky, some consumed in celebration, others in grief.
Then, fans on both sides will wake up Saturday morning and wonder how this even happened.