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Handling the hype: Former Cats offer perspective on how to block out rivalry buildup

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Darius Miller scored 13 points in UK's Final Four victory over Louisville in 2012. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Darius Miller scored 13 points in UK's Final Four victory over Louisville in 2012. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Darius Miller remembers the epic buildup for the Kentucky-Louisville game in New Orleans two years ago with a bid to the national championship game on the line. He remembers the unprecedented hype and attention the game received, not only within the state but across the country.

Two years later, he's just glad he gets to watch the rivalry and enjoy it from a different point of view.

"I'm like a fan now so I get to sit back and watch and enjoy it," Miller said. "I know what (the players are) going through and I know they're having a good time. It's exciting. I'm just watching like everybody else now."

The anticipation for the 2012 Final Four game was unlike anything the rivalry had ever experienced, which is saying something for a series that spans all the way back to 1913, includes a number of classics and features the original Dream Game in 1983.

But given the stage in 2012 in the Final Four, the unquenchable thirst for a national championship of both teams at the time (UK hadn't won a title since 1998 and Louisville's drought went all the way back to 1986) and the backdrop (Kentucky was trying to the unthinkable and win with freshmen while U of L made a surprise run), the 2012 buildup was gargantuan.

It was a state divided like never before, and Miller can certainly remember the tension and anxiety when he was a part of the team that week despite everyone's best efforts to shield those distractions away.

"We were aware, especially with all the social media and stuff like that," Miller said. "On campus, it was a huge rivalry in the state, so people would come up to us on campus and ask us to win the game and tell us to have a great game and just be excited about the game. We really just tried to block all that out."

Believe it or not, Miller said they did.

"The main thing we had to focus on - everybody that was on the staff, that was on the team, the whole family that we built there - we just tried to keep it amongst each other and stay focused on the game and what we needed to do," Miller said.

As cliche as the "one game at a time" mentality can sound and as hard as it is to believe that the players actually shut out all the distractions in 2012, Miller said they were able to because that's what they had done all year.

With the type of season the Wildcats were having and the goals that were attainable for that group, hype had been built long before the kings of the Commonwealth met in New Orleans. Sure, the matchup in the Final Four only intensified things tenfold, but Miller said they were able to stay focused because they had fallen into the routine of taking everything one game at a time.

"Honestly, it was pretty much the same," Miller said. "That whole year we did a good job of just preparing for one game at a time and treating every game the same. By that time we had already built that mindset that every game was the same. We were going to treat it just like any other game."

Miller said the team took a "step back" on social media during the entire NCAA Tournament run to avoid any temptation, and he said John Calipari never even brought up the magnitude of the rivalry or what was at stake.

"He just treated it the same way he had all year," Miller said. "He never really approached any game differently. He was consistent throughout the whole year and I think that helped us to be the same and do it the same way."

The approach worked for Miller, who scored 13 points and hit a key 3-pointer near the five-minute mark to give UK a seven-point lead after a furious Cardinal run.

In that regard, Calipari will try to take the same approach with this year's team as it gets ready to meet Louisville in the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three seasons.

The buildup this time around doesn't feel the same as 2012, probably due in large part to the stage in the tournament (Sweet 16). But when one factors in the location of this year's game in Indianapolis and the proximity to both fan bases, not to mention the fact that the teams have won the last two national titles, don't think for a second that UK-Louisville in the NCAA Tournament isn't still an enormous deal.

"Anytime you play Louisville, it's a rivalry game, but when you're playing the tournament, take all that that you did in the regular season and everything you have in the rivalry and multiple that by 10 when you get to the tournament," former Wildcat Kenny "Sky" Walker said. "When you think it can't go up or the rivalry can't get any higher, I think that the last couple of years that we see it absolutely can."

If there is anyone who can identify with what Miller went through in 2012 and what the current UK players are going through now, it's Walker.

Walker was a freshman on the 1982-83 team that played in the original Dream Game in the 1983 NCAA Tournament. After going more than two decades without playing each other, the two rivals finally met in the NCAA Tournament in a game so hyped that only the 2012 one can rival it.

"I don't think anything, even if you grew up in Kentucky, could prepare for the hype because everybody had been anticipating that matchup for so long," Walker said.

Walker still paints a vivid picture of the Dream Game from his memories. He remembers a perfectly divided Stokely Center in Knoxville, Tenn., with fans dressed in blue on one side and fans in red on the other. He even remembers Kentucky's governor at the time, John Y. Brown, showing up to the game in a blazer that was half red, half blue.

"That kind of summed it for me that, yeah, this state is divided," Walker said.

Walker said they faced a similar buildup to that NCAA 1983 NCAA regional, but the hype was actually for a different team and a different rival: Indiana. Before they met Louisville in the regional finals, Walker's Wildcats had to get through the Hoosiers first.

Indiana had beaten UK in the regular season, so Walker said the focus that week was centered on getting revenge. Only once the Cats had beaten the Hoosiers did the attention - and the hype - turn to Louisville, and even then, only a day separated the two games.

"Not only were we fighting to beat Louisville, we were fighting to get to the Final Four," Walker said. "So you know, we had a lot of things we could accomplish and we were only 40 minutes away - actually, in the original Dream Game it was 45 minutes because it went into overtime. It was a great day until overtime."

UK lost the Dream Game 80-68 in overtime, but not because the anticipation or pressure got to the Cats' heads, Walker said. Like Calipari is trying to do with this year's team, Walker said his head coach at the time, Joe B. Hall, kept the team's attention focused only on what it could control.

"He's a disciple of Adolph Rupp," Walker said of Hall. "I remember him being very business-like during the week. Nothing really changed out of the ordinary, and even when the game happened he said, 'Guys, just go out, play the game like you would any other game. We're just going to go out here and win. We've got a game plan and we're going to go out and fight.' "

UK will try to do the same this week in Indianapolis, but Walker doesn't envy this year's group in that it has to put up with an entire week of buildup instead of the quick turnaround like he experienced for the Cardinals.

"Look, the coach can tell you whatever he wants," Walker said. "Don't read the paper, don't look at the news, don't watch sports - all that stuff. But when you're walking around campus, you go to the car wash, you go to the grocery store, you're out at the mall, whatever you do, you're constantly reminded of that game and how important it is to people and the fans."

Throw in today's modern age of social media, sensationalized media coverage, and the thirst to instantly and overly analyze everything and Walker said it's an entirely different buildup than the one he went through in 1983.

"I cannot imagine the compression and the microscope that these kids are under now with camera phones and pictures and Instagram and all that stuff," Walker said. "It's probably more demanding on them today than it was on us because there are so many distractions. You can't get away from them. So God bless them."

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