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[rl]NEW ORLEANS - It's a Final Four rivalry game that has fans of both sides impassioned, enraged and perhaps as eager to see the other team's demise as their own team's success.
But the players in the Kentucky-Louisville game? Most of them are friends.
Saturday night's first national semifinal at the Louisiana Superdome will no doubt be an intense game, and it won't be a surprise to see plenty of hard fouls, loose-ball scrums and even some trash talking among the players.
But there also figures to be a lot of mutual respect on the court.
"I know a lot of their players that I have friendships with," UK forward Terrence Jones said. "I mean, they're down the street, so of course I know them, and we don't have any type of rivalry really."
Jones, a native of Portland, Ore., said he has known U of L point guard Peyton Siva of Seattle "all my life, since we were real little" and is also friends with U of L freshman Chane Behanan.
Behanan said he and UK freshmen Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague developed a strong friendship this time last year during the week of the McDonald's All-American game and have stayed close.
Click Here to view this Link.UK's Anthony DavisClick Here to view this Link. and U of L's Wayne BlackshearClick Here to view this Link., the two best players to come out of Chicago in the 2011 high school class, have been friends for years.
The Cards' Russ Smith and Angel Nunez played on the same New York-based travel team as the Cats' Doron Lamb. Lamb said he's known Smith says they were 10 and called him "one of my great friends."
Siva, a junior, and Jones, a sophomore, said they faced off against each other countless times when their travel teams went around the Northwest for tournaments. Jones is a year younger than Siva, but he always played up in the higher age group. Siva was frequently in Portland, and Jones was regularly in Seattle.
Both went on to McDonald's All-American high school careers, and they've stayed in fairly regular contact since they've gotten to college.
"We were very close," Jones said. "We'd play in a game, then go outside and play in front of my house on each other's team, against just random people or against each other. We just had fun. Being so close and respecting each other just made us great friends."
Siva remembers Jones as a talkative, energetic, funny guy who was a clown on his team.
He said he and Jones, who's now 6 feet 9, were the same height when they first became friends as kids.
"Then he hit some kind of major growth spurt or something," the 6-foot Siva said with a smile. "He was really good back then, so I know he was going to be something special."
Behanan and Teague have been longtime acquaintances as well. Teague, who's from Indianapolis, said he and Behanan, a Cincinnati native who transferred to Bowling Green High School in Kentucky before his junior year, were both recruited as underclassmen by the University of Cincinnati and hung out together on visits to the school.
Behanan said his Ohio high school, Aiken, played in a camp in Cincinnati against Teague's Pike High School.
"Our (UK) fans don't like their fans," Teague said. "It's a heated rivalry in the state of Kentucky, but as far as players go, we're all not from Kentucky pretty much. We know each other from AAU and things like that. We're all friends."
Behanan said his friendship with Teague and Kidd-Gilchrist blossomed during the week of last year's McDonald's game in Chicago.
He said he admired Kidd-Gilchrist, the nation's No. 1 small forward prospect; and Teague, the nation's No. 1 point guard; for being down-to-earth, humble players who didn't let the "hype" of their basketball stature affect their personalities.
"They were just real respectful people," Behanan said. "I see they come from good families, and ... they're all about their business. They focus on one thing, and that's basketball. They weren't into the streets. They weren't talking about how they lived and where they came up. They just talked about what was ahead of them."
At media day at last year's McDonald's game, Behanan, Teague, Kidd-Gilchrist, as well as UK's Anthony Davis and Kyle Wiltjer and U of L's Wayne Blackshear all sat around engaged in friendly trash-talking about being part of the rivalry ahead.
In fact, Davis said he watched a YouTube video of the group interview on Thursday night.
Almost exactly a year later, they're squaring off in the Final Four.
"It's funny actually, sitting back there that day talking about who was going to win or just having fun," Behanan said. "Now that we are actually facing each other in the Final Four, that's really big. This game will go down in history. New Orleans is making a lot of money. Bourbon Street is making a lot of money. For them and for us, on behalf of both teams, it's a blessing."