You can't look to your left or right without seeing jean shorts and oversized Louisville and Kentucky jerseys. Every three seconds there's a "C-A" chant that's either met with an appropriate "T" or interrupted with an unwanted "R-D-S." This is Bourbon Street in New Orleans on the night before the biggest basketball game in the history of a state obsessed with the game, and it's pure insanity.
Louisville and Kentucky are about to face one another in the Final Four, a scenario previously known only during late-night "what would you do if" conversations with drinking buddies in the Commonwealth. Neither side really knows how to approach what's currently taking place and what's about to take place, so both seem to be turning to the comfort of alcohol and familiar cheers.
"March Madness" doesn't do what's currently happening to the city of New Orleans justice. This is the Churchill Downs infield on Kentucky Derby day, but on acid and spread out over a handful of days.
"I'm about to slap the shit out of the next person I hear starting a CARDS chant," from a member of Big Blue Nation is heard approximately 20 seconds before "they're just as fat, annoying and ugly down here as they are back home" is hurled from a member of the rival group just to his right.
Kansas and Ohio State fans look like they're wondering if they accidentally flew into Mars instead of Louisiana.
The best and worst thing about the Kentucky/Louisville rivalry has always been that they play just once. It creates a de facto holiday in the state of Kentucky and makes the stakes and intensity surrounding the game much higher than they'd be if the teams were guaranteed no less than two meetings. For somewhere around 365 days, one group of fans gets chest-thumping rights while the only avenue of rejoinder for the other is "if they'd played again."
For the first time since the series was resurrected in 1983, that's about to change. For two fan bases that argue supremacy the way the McCourts argued about the Dodgers, a Final Four victory will be the ultimate trump card.
You play in the SEC. The Big East is overrated. Your coach is a cheat. Which one has the violations on his record? Cal is a choke artist. Pitino is past his prime. That game was in December. If they'd played again ...
"If we don't win it, I hope y'all bring it home," a man in a "UK2K" shirt tells a fan wearing a Louisville Final Four shirt. "OK, that's a lie, but I really do hope it's a good game."
It's a comment that represents the last vestige of cordiality -- even if it is the product of fear or insincerity -- in a rivalry that's never been known for it.
After Saturday night, all the talk is inconsequential, and both groups know it. For once, the losing side will head into the offseason without a viable rebuttal. One side gets to gloat, one side has to shut up.
I fear for the Big Easy when that becomes the case.
"What do I want from this weekend?" a U of L fan says, repeating the interviewer's question. "I want John Calipari to cry. If anybody in basketball has had this type of loss coming, it's him. He cheats, he gets away with it, and no one seems to care. For Louisville to be the team that ruins his best shot at a national championship, man, it would be too sweet."
The original "Dream Game" between Louisville and Kentucky in the 1983 regional finals is always going to be significant to the rivalry because it gave the Cardinals the shot they had been wanting for a decade and ultimately revived the series. This is a different monster, though. This is a game coming at a time when the friction between the two programs is as high as it's ever been -- we're only about five months removed from this -- and with Wildcats fans feeling as though their return to the top of the college basketball mountain is almost foregone conclusion.
Oh, and it's happening on the sport's biggest stage.
No two fan bases care about college basketball more than Louisville and Kentucky, and partially as a result of that, no rivalry in the sport is accompanied by more mutual disdain. Take all of that and ship it to New Orleans for a meeting in the Final Four and you've got ... well, I'm still not really sure what last night was.
A UK fan begins to talk to me, but then races off because he thinks he's spotted Richie Farmer -- a former "Mr. Basketball" in the state of Kentucky who averaged 7.2 points per game for the Wildcats from 1988-1992 -- in front of a bar to our right. Oscar Robertson is standing about five feet to his left. He is fully aware and he doesn't care.
It's that sort of passion bordering on insanity that has an entire state on edge just hours before the tip-off of college basketball's first national semifinal. It's also what makes me fear for the safety of an entire city (or three) once one's season has been brought to an end by the other Saturday night.