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UCLA vs. Kentucky: ‘Traditions like no other’

Not many Sweet 16 matchups could reduce North Carolina-Butler to the undercard. Never, however, has an NCAA tournament game paired teams with 19 titles between them.

“If you’re talking about just watching a game as a fan, darned right I’d like to watch that game,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said Thursday of Kentucky-UCLA. “But I’d like to watch it a heck of a lot more if I’ve got a really big interest in who we’d be playing.”

Roughly one-fourth of all NCAA tournaments have been won by UCLA or Kentucky. (The Bruins lead that head-to-head competition 11-8, although the Wildcats have won three since UCLA’s last.) If you add North Carolina, Duke, Indiana and Kansas together, you get one fewer than those held by the two who’ll meet here on Friday.

Oh, and there’s this: Every time UCLA and Kentucky have met in the Big Dance, one of them has won it all. (Actually, that sounds bigger than it is. They’ve met twice — one in the 1975 title game when the Bruins snagged Title No. 10 for John Wooden in his final game, again in the 1998 Sweet 16 when the Wildcats were en route to a championship in Year One under Tubby Smith.

For late tuners-in, Kentucky was the NCAA Tournament in the ‘40s and ‘50s, whereupon almost every Big Dance — not that it was known as such back then — in the ’60s and ’70s belonged to the imperial Bruins.

“These are two programs that have a tradition like no other,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said. (That sound you heard was the folks at Augusta National filing for copyright infringement.) “And that was true long before I was at UCLA and (John Calipari) was at Kentucky.”

In NCAA appearances, Kentucky is first and UCLA third. In Final Fours, Kentucky and UCLA are tied for second, one behind Carolina. In tournament games won, Kentucky is first and UCLA fourth. (North Carolina and Duke are second and third.)

The latter two schools — their campuses separated by eight miles — play a high-profile game at least twice every season. To drive from Pauley Pavilion to Rupp Arena, a distance of 2,174 miles, would take 31 hours. UCLA and Kentucky have met 13 times, seven of the games coming this century. These are old schools, but theirs isn’t an old-school rivalry, which is why Friday night’s encounter is so appetizing.

“Give Cal credit,” Alford said. “He reached out to me when we got into the Champions Classic with Carolina, with Ohio State and Kentucky. … He also talked about a home-and-home and obviously a lot of our talk was what that meant for our fan bases. The Kentucky fan base to have a UCLA coming into Rupp, and for our fan base in Westwood to have a team like Kentucky coming into Pauley Pavilion. And here we are in a neutral setting.”

That said, this isn’t just any neutral setting. (Truth to tell, there’s no such thing when Big Blue fans are within driving distance.) This is the place Calipari left for the Bluegrass. Some Memphis fans haven’t forgiven him. Friday night will mark his first game in FedExForum since he worked here.

“We did all right here,” he said, and his Memphis Tigers did. If not for a blown nine-point lead inside the final two minutes of regulation, they’d have been 2008 NCAA champs. That was the team with Derrick Rose, the bad foul-shooting team that Calipari insisted would make its free throws when it mattered. (Whoops.)

“We met with friends last night (in Memphis),” Calipari said. “We had a reception. Couple hundred people were there. We got to meet and touch and thank those people. Ellen (his wife) and I loved our time here … It was a terrific ride.”

A Memphis writer mentioned that the 2008 Final Four isn’t commemorated on a banner hanging above the Forum court. That season was vacated by the NCAA after Rose’s SAT score was voided. (By the time of that finding, he was playing for the Chicago Bulls.) Said Calipari: “There’s nothing that can take away what that run was about for all of us, including the city.”

As for his departure: “Kentucky’s one that you leave for. It just is. There’s was no intent to offend anybody. It’s just, ‘It’s Kentucky.’”

This Kentucky hasn’t lost since Feb. 4. This UCLA has lost once since Jan. 25. There could be five one-and-done NBA lottery picks on the floor Friday. According to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, these two play at the fastest pace among teams remaining in this tournament. Noting that most opponents seek to drag the Wildcats into a halfcourt grind, Calipari said: “I’m not sure UCLA will try to slow down. Let’s go. Let’s play to 120.”

The two came close when they met at Rupp on Dec. 3. UCLA won 97-92. Eleven players scored in double figures. “I think the transition points were 25-21 for us,” Alford said. “That’s a lot of transition points.”

For all the backdrop — “They’re rich in tradition: we are, too,” said Lonzo Ball, UCLA’s great guard — this game will be just that. A game between teams capable of winning this NCAA title, a game that will send one home after three rounds. A game between Ball and Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox, between T.J. Leaf and Malik Monk. Possibly the best game of this Dance.

“This is about two unbelievably talented teams,” Calipari said. “(People are) going to watch it not because I’m back in Memphis or I’m coaching, or Steve’s coaching, but because these are two unbelievably talented teams.”

Well, yes. But also because one is UCLA and the other is Kentucky. That’s kind of a big deal.

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