Kentucky, West Virginia set to feud

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Randolph ”Ole Ran’l” McCoy lived on the Kentucky side of Tug Fork. William ”Devil Anse” Hatfield lived on the West Virginia banks of the same river.

In the late 1800s, a stolen pig, a forbidden romance, a bootlegging operation, a timber fortune and crooked politics all led to the general distrust and hatred between the two families. It created the most famous feud in American history – the Hatfields and the McCoys. Over nearly a dozen years more than a dozen people on both sides of the river were killed.

Patrick Patterson grew up in West Virginia and chose Kentucky over the Mountaineers.
(Richard Mackson / US Presswire)

After two ugly yet victorious efforts here at the NCAA tournament’s East Regional, we get the modern day hoops version – Kentucky and West Virginia play for a spot in the Final Four. Death is unlikely; physical play, high emotions and over-the-top state pride is expected.

”It will be one of those games that [players will] be like, ‘Wow, they’re coming at us left and right,”’ said Kentucky coach John Calipari.

To get to this point, both clubs had to win not with glorious plays but with grit and force and strength and rebounding and defense. Kentucky outlasted Cornell 62-45. West Virginia beat Washington 69-56.

The most polite way to describe this night of college basketball is to say it had a good personality. Only it didn’t really.

Cornell, the Ivy League dreamers, put up a fight yet never really had a chance to win. Washington actually led in the second half before West Virginia turned up the intensity and dominated. There was none of the excitement the games in Salt Lake City provided. This was two tractor pulls on hardwood.

Saturday doesn’t predict to be a high-flying affair either, the state universities of the Hatfields and McCoys will settle things the way the people of both places appreciate it – with toughness.

This is one of those games that will mean more than just a game; two teams representing two schools, representing two states that live and die with their athletic fortunes. WVU coach Bob Huggins said pregame the state’s governor told him they were piping the play-by-play of the Mountaineers game into the factories and coal mines for the second shift workers.

”Otherwise guys were trying to get off their shift, because they wanted to watch the game,” Huggins said. ”So they piped it in. It’s piped in everywhere in the state of West Virginia. Everybody in West Virginia is listening to the game or watching the game. That’s how much it means to our state.”

On the other side of Tug Fork it may be even more intense. There isn’t a program in the country that means more to its fans – few of whom actually attended the school – than Kentucky.

”Obviously Kentucky is one of those places [and] I imagine West Virginia is very similar in that the people across the state breathe the program,” Calipari said.

Patrick Patterson grew up in Huntington, W.Va., which sits on the Kentucky border. He strongly considered signing with WVU before eventually choosing UK, a decision not lost on Mountaineer fans, who lustily booed him in pregame introductions.

“West Virginia native and I didn’t go to West Virginia,” Patterson said with a smile. “That is huge game for both people from Kentucky and West Virginia.”

Since the schools rarely play each other in basketball or football, there isn’t a huge built-in rivalry. Both these teams respect each other. Huggins and Calipari have known each other for years. Even the Hatfields and the McCoys eventually made up; their descendants formalized it by appearing on an episode of the television game show “Family Feud” in 1979, complete with the winner getting a pig. Now both families cooperate to cash in on tourism.

John Calipari and the Wildcats respect their neighbors to the east and expect a tough game.
(Jim McIsaac / Getty Images)

Relative peace notwithstanding, all involved here understand the stakes.

These are states that put huge value in the athletic programs of their namesake schools if only so they can remind America that they are still there. Neither place is home to a major media market or a major professional sports team. Each is known for the Appalachian Mountains (although much of Kentucky is pancake-flat). These are mostly blue-collar places; in median household income, Kentucky ranks 47th, while West Virginia is 49th.

It’s more than basketball that drives the pride they hold for these teams.

“You don’t understand, unless you’ve ever been to West Virginia, how much it means to the people,” said Huggins, who has vowed that if the Mountaineers win a national title he’ll take the trophy on tour to every county in the state.

“There’s such great pride there. And for me, having played there and being born there. My mom and dad are both from Morgantown. My dad grew up in Dug Hill. My mom grew up on Eighth Street. So I understand. I understand how much it means.”

Earlier this month after winning the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden, Huggins teared up when he heard fans sign along to John Denver’s “Country Roads.” Here Thursday night, after the Wildcats won, the Big Blue Nation linked arms and rocked back and forth while singing “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Both states, both schools and both fan bases are desperate for a Final Four. West Virginia hasn’t been since 1959, when it lost in the title game. Kentucky, despite its rich tradition and seven championships, hasn’t reached the final weekend since 1998. Both programs believe the winner of the East Regional can go on to win the national title in Indianapolis.

Kentucky (35-2) has won eight games in a row; West Virginia (30-6) has taken nine consecutive. Kentucky is champion of the Southeastern Conference. West Virginia won the Big East Tournament. Kentucky has John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins and Patterson. West Virginia has Da’Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks and Kevin Jones. Calipari will be screaming in his suit in front of one bench; Huggins in his warm-up jacket in front of the other.

Neither team is going to give an inch. Neither team is going to let a rebound go unchallenged. Neither is going to allow a shot to be uncontested.

Saturday, Kentucky and West Virginia are going to roll up their sleeves and fight for the Final Four. It’s how they’ve always done it along Tug Fork; no sense in changing things now.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Mar 26, 2010