Time’s reputation for distorting the past is well established and equally deserved. It’s so good at what it does that at some point in every person’s life they begin to doubt – to at least some degree – the validity of their own memories.
I bring this up because in my surely flawed mind, 90 percent of the games Louisville played against Cincinnati in the 1990s took place on Thursday nights at 9 p.m. on ESPN. Both teams always had legitimate national title aspirations, and every game between the pair rivaled Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals.
Most people experience several drastic life changes in their 20s, 30s or 40s, but there’s a sense of familiarity inherent in established adulthood that makes all the rearranging feel like it’s still part of the same “era,” for lack of a better term. The same can’t be said for youth, where the period from ages 6-13 essentially encompasses three or four different lives. It’s likely this phenomenon that has made late Thursday night games against Cincinnati feel like more of a staple of Cardinal basketball in the ’90s than they may have been for other generations.
Still, the memories feel fresh and appear vivid to your faithful narrator.
This was a period where Cincinnati was consistently one of the best teams in college basketball, and almost always the baddest. The rivalry between the Cardinals and Bearcats was Conference USA basketball, and it always demanded a national audience.
In the days leading up to the games against UC, my friends and I would update each other on the status of our persuasive attempts to earn permission to attend the game, or at least stay up and watch it. Some would celebrate an unparalleled triumph of youth, while others would shed tears and be relegated to an early morning update from their father or The Courier-Journal.
The one memory that stands out above all others from this period was basking in the glow of the ’96 victory in the old living room at my parents’ house and realizing that “The Late Show With David Letterman” was on. The Cards just beat Cincinnati, Letterman’s on, I’ve got school tomorrow and holy mother of God, I’m still awake. It may have been the most celestial moment of my childhood.
The rivalry with Cincinnati was never on par with Kentucky (nothing is), but it certainly had its own place. While disdain for the wild brand of cats is an almost inherent aspect of being a Louisville fan, the Bearcats had to earn their ire. And they did. The players were dirty and didn’t care (Kenyon Martin is still the most intimidating human being I’ve ever been in the presence of), Bob Huggins’ antics made him perhaps the ultimate UofL villain of the ’90s, and more times than not, they got the better of our beloved Cardinals. All of these factors made the pair of annual games two of the biggest events during winters in Louisville, and made the victories savored memories.
Again, nothing can compare to the Louisville/Kentucky rivalry, but those games against Cincinnati are still some of my first thoughts whenever the topic of Freedom Hall is brought up. They were special, especially for someone in that twilight era of fan development.
Then the rivalry tapered off.
First, it was because Cincinnati dominated. The Bearcats won eight straight games over Louisville between 1997 and 2001, making their own overly generous contribution to the “Fire Denny” movement. Things were revived slightly when Rick Pitino arrived and both programs experienced success in the early part of the last decade, but the old mutual disdain was noticeably lacking. The pair of programs then made the move to the Big East together in 2005, Bob Huggins resigned, and UC has never been able to get back to the heights it reached under him.
The rivalry had survived periods where one of the two had dipped before, mostly because the teams played in conferences that lacked a multitude of fellow premier programs. This wasn’t the case anymore, and with Cincinnati turning into a league doormat, the Cardinals had the likes of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Georgetown to steal their focus.
The Bearcats have improved drastically under former Pitino assistant Mick Cronin, making each of the past three NCAA Tournaments and winning a total of three games after getting there. They even threw in a nasty brawl with rival Xavier a couple of years ago to try and revive the old “bad boy” image for us.
This all brings us to Thursday night’s game between the Cardinals and the Bearcats, which has a bit of an old-time feel to it. Cincinnati will enter the game as the only undefeated team in the American Athletic Conference,and is ranked No. 13 in the latest edition of the Associated Press Top 25. Louisville sits alone in second place behind UC in the league standings, but one spot ahead of them in the AP poll.
It should be a fitting final duel in the Derby City between two programs that have met 97 times before, and which have spent the past 46 years as members of the same conference. With Louisville bolting for the ACC next season and leaving Cincinnati behind, there’s no telling when the Cardinals will see their most-played rival visit the KFC Yum! Center again.
If this rivalry has to die, then Thursday night’s game (as well as the return tilt in Cincinnati on Feb. 22) should make for a fitting farewell. Hopefully we’ll all get to do a little school-night celebrating with Dave.