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Kentuckiana again focal point of college hoops

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Kentuckiana again focal point of college hoops

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) It's always been easy for basketball fans living in this part of the country to find a good game. There are 15 national championship banners hanging in three campus arenas within about two hours of each other.

They've been spoiled by Indiana, Louisville and Kentucky - all just a short ride along Interstate 64 or 65.

But never like this.

For the first time the Hoosiers, Cardinals and Wildcats start the season ranked 1-2-3 in the Top 25.

Welcome to Kentuckiana.

The corridor along the Ohio River is once again the focal point of college hoops - rekindling memories of its heyday back in the 1970s and 1980s. The last time Indiana, Louisville and Kentucky were ranked in the top five was 32 years ago. And it's been 37 years since they finished the 1975 season rounding out the top four behind UCLA.

All three schools reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament in 1975. Kentucky ended Indiana's perfect season with a 92-90 victory to advance to the Final Four, along with Louisville. The Cardinals lost to UCLA in the semifinals and then the Bruins knocked off the Wildcats for the title.

That year was the highlight of Kentuckiana - until now.

``If you're a fan in this area, even if you don't like someone it doesn't get any better than what you have around here,'' said former Louisville coach Denny Crum, who led the Cardinals to titles in 1980 and `86.

``Fans here are treated to something very special because people are always talking about these three teams. Right here is the top college basketball in the country.''

The fans are some of the most passionate in the country. They are nearly as territorial about their favorite team as they are knowledgeable about the game. That's especially true about Big Blue Nation, the throng of Wildcat faithful whose sheer numbers seem to irritate their neighbors as much as their team's success.

Even across the Ohio River in Jeffersonville, Ind. - an area affectionately called the `sunny side of Louisville'' - where Kentuckiana thrives with plenty of Louisville red among the Hoosier crimson, and the blue of the Wildcats stands out.

That doesn't sit well with Indiana fan Ernest Brown, 63, though he's more tolerant of Cardinals fans than Wildcats fans.

``That burns me up,'' Brown said of the UK paraphernalia he sees. ``There are so many Kentucky fans, you wonder why they just don't move there. (But) when the (Cardinals) lose, yeah, they're down. They're not making 500 excuses. ... It's just a different kind of people on the same side of the river. I don't understand it.''

Still, beneath the fans' dislike for one another sits a mutual respect - albeit begrudgingly -for all three teams.

Kentucky rolled to its eighth NCAA title last year with tournament victories over Indiana and Louisville led by freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The Wildcats and coach John Calipari have replaced that group with another talented rookie class that includes Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein and Nerlens Noel. But Kentucky begins the season in the polls behind Indiana and Louisville, which return veteran rosters.

Former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall says it all just adds to the excitement in Kentuckiana.

``It's great what Indiana has done with keeping their recruits and it's been good for Louisville,'' said Hall, who led the Wildcats to three Final Fours and the 1978 championship. ``But Cal is in a situation all his own with these one-and-dones. I think it's exciting for our fans.''

Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, the former Indiana All-American, said having the Hoosiers competitive again is a big part.

``Kentucky has always been extremely good and competitive and Louisville has always had good players and a good program,'' said Thomas, who led the Hoosiers to the 1981 national title. ``But Indiana has always prided itself on the purity of the game. So, I give more weight to Indiana because of what it represents in terms of basketball.''

There was a time in Kentuckiana that debate would have been settled on the court in the Big Four Classic.

Louisville, Kentucky, Indiana and Notre Dame used to battle in Indianapolis every December from 1987 to 1990. That event disbanded for various reasons and Louisville hasn't played Indiana since 2003. Though the Cardinals and Wildcats will play here on Dec. 29, the Hoosiers announced last spring they wouldn't play Kentucky this season because they were already playing too many games away from Bloomington.

Former Louisville star Darrell Griffith leads a chorus of laments for the teams to work something out.

``I don't think it's that hard to play each other because Louisville and Kentucky play every year,'' said Griffith, known as ``Dr. Dunkenstein'' when he led Louisville to the 1980 title. ``You just do it. The fans would love it. The players would love it.''

Calipari, whose Wildcats lost at Indiana last December on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, said he didn't want the series to end.

``I wanted to play those Indiana games and I thought they'd be great games in Indianapolis but that's fine,'' he said. ``We're doing what most teams are doing, playing a schedule that fits.''

Kentucky radio analyst Mike Pratt and former Indiana All-American Brian Evans say it's just wrong that the teams don't play each other.

``I can appreciate the rivalry because I've lived in the middle of it and have known so many Louisville and Indiana players,'' said Pratt, a Wildcats Hall of Famer who played at UK from 1967-1970. ``You observe how they talk about it. There are a lot of armchair quarterbacks out there, but that's what makes playing around here so special. They care almost to a fault.''

Said Evans, ``These games need to be played. Too many fans want to see it happen.''

Especially with Kentuckiana back in the national spotlight.

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3 reasons why the Caps lost to the Lightning

3 reasons why the Caps lost to the Lightning

After a rough start, the Caps battled back to make a game of it against Tampa Bay, but ultimately fell 4-2 to the Lightning. Here's why.

The first period

To put it simply, this game was lost in the opening period. Washington was the better team for the second and third but they could not overcome the 3-0 lead they spotted the Lightning in the first. Beyond the goals, the Caps just did not play well. Even the simplest of plays looked difficult as Washington struggled to get the puck out of their own zone, gave up numerous turnovers and scoring chances and just looked overmatched. Braden Holtby also looked shaky allowing three goals on just eight shots. Usually he is able to cover up some of the mistakes the defense makes it front of him, but he was not there to bail the team out on Tuesday in what was a really rocky start.

RELATED: CHECK OUT THE 3 STARS FROM CAPS-LIGHTNING

Taking a penalty 34 seconds into the game

Entering Tuesday’s game, Tampa Bay boasted the second best power play unit in the league. Playing a disciplined game is part of every game plan, but that is especially true against such a dominant unit. Giving up a penalty just 34 seconds into the game was not an ideal start. The call itself was debatable. Brett Connolly was called for interference when he knocked over Dan Girardi in the offensive zone. The puck was just behind Girardi as he had lost control of it in his skates. The sticking point here is that Girardi no longer had possession and Connolly could have played the puck instead of the player. Most referees would probably let that go with the puck so close, but Connolly was not so lucky. Whether it was a good call or not, the Caps found themselves down a man and down a goal soon after as Brayden Point scored the power play tally.

A missed opportunity from Kuznetsov on one end, a goal for Nikita Kucherov on the other

Even after spotting the Lightning a 3-0 lead, the Caps made a game of it. Lars Eller struck on the power play in the second period and Alex Ovechkin pulled Washington to within one with about nine minutes left to play. Just over a minute later, Evgeny Kuznetsov stole the puck away from Nikita Kucherov, the frontrunner for league MVP this season, at the Tampa blue line giving the Caps a short 2-on-1. Defenseman Andrej Sustr was textbook on the play forcing Kuznetsov as far wide as he could go while still covering the passing lane and Kuznetsov elected to shoot from the faceoff dot rather than attempt the pass to T.J. Oshie.Andrei Vasilevskiy made a routine blocker save to deny what looked like a great opportunity to tie the game. As always happens in hockey, a failed opportunity on one end led to an opportunity in the other direction. Less than a minute later, Kucherov made up for his mistake by scoring a breakaway goal to put the game out of reach at 4-2.

MORE CAPITALS: KEMPNY EXCITED TO MOVE FROM LAST PLACE CHICAGO TO FIRST PLACE WASHINGTON

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3 stars of the game: Lightning strike 3 times in the first to burn Caps

3 stars of the game: Lightning strike 3 times in the first to burn Caps

The first 20 minutes of Tuesday's game did not go well for Washington. The Tampa Bay Lightning scored three times in the opening frame and rode that lead all the way to the 4-2 win.

With the game heading towards a repeat of their blowout loss to Chicago, the Capitals rebounded in the second period to make a game of it as Lars Eller scored on a power play. Alex Ovechkin pulled Washington within one in the third period, but Nikita Kucherov slammed the door shut with a breakaway goal to extend the lead back to 2.

Here are the three stars of the game:

1. Brayden Point: Tampa Bay won this game in the first period when they took a 3-0 lead. Point scored two of those three goals. His first came only 2:30 into the game. He retreated to the blue line on the power play believing Jay Beagle would clear the puck. When Beagle turned the puck over, he recognized it and immediately crashed the net, taking a Ryan Callahan pass in the slot and shooting it through the five-hole of Braden Holtby.

On his second goal, Anton Stralman saw an opportunity on the Caps’ line change and passed the puck up to Point at the blue line. Point turned on the jets to get behind the defense and went five-hole again on Holtby to make the score 3-0.

2. Alex Ovechkin: After the first period, Washington slowly took this game over for much of the remaining 40 minutes. Ovechkin was a big part of that as he totaled an incredible 19 shot attempts for the game. Nine of those shots were on goal and he found the back of the net in the third period for career goal No. 594.

3. Tom Wilson: Through the first period, the Caps looked well on their way to a repeat of the 7-1 debacle they suffered Saturday in Chicago. They had nothing going in this game until Wilson drew a trip from Vladislav Namestnikov in the second period. Eller would score on the resulting power play giving Washington some much-needed life.

The Namestnikov penalty was the 29th drawn penalty of the season for Wilson, which moves him into a tie with Matthew Tkachuk for the most drawn penalties in the NHL.