Kentuckians know they have two world-class products: bourbon and basketball. So it’s only fitting that freshman Rep. Andy Barr, a Republican who represents Lexington, and Rep. John Yarmuth, a Democrat who represents Louisville, bet several bottles of bourbon on Friday’s Sweet 16 matchup between the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville.
The in-state rivalry between the two hard-court titans was cemented in 1983 when the “Dream Game”—an epic, Elite 8 overtime clash in which Louisville beat Kentucky—drove the state general assembly to mandate a non-conference matchup each and every year. Since then, the game has forged Bluegrass bragging rights, pumped up over the past few years with a Kentucky championship in 2012 and a Louisville championship last year.
“College basketball is king to the commonwealth of Kentucky,” Barr tells TIME. “Even [Louisville and former Kentucky] Coach [Rick] Pitino once said that the University of Kentucky is the Roman empire of college basketball.”
Both members have considerable knowledge of the game, common for the towns in which they grew up in and now represent.
“A lot is on the line here in the Sweet 16, but I like Kentucky’s chances based on our size, our talent, and the way we’ve been playing recently,” Barr says. “Julius Randle is absolutely unstoppable,” he adds, referring to the 6’9, 250-pound freshman who is considered by many analysts to be one of the top players in the 2013 class. “He is a force. I don’t care if he is double teamed or triple teamed, you can’t stop Julius Randle. You can only hope to contain him.”
Yarmuth, who will attend the game on behalf of his former employer Louisville, understands that his team, which lost to Kentucky in December, has some challenges despite being the favorite. “It’s a huge size disadvantage,” Yarmuth tells TIME. “It’s not a great matchup for us.”
But he believes his team can still pull out the victory. “We have to hit a reasonable percentage of three pointers to win,” Yarmuth says, putting on his ESPN commentator cap. “You’ve got senior leadership,” he adds. “We lead the country in margin of victory, turnover margin—we’re at the top in both offense and defense efficiency. We beat Connecticut three times pretty easily, and Connecticut is still in the tournament.”
Yarmuth says that Coach Pitino can give the Cardinals the edge. “Give him five days to prepare—particularly for a [Kentucky] team that’s very inexperienced and doesn’t really have much of an offense,” Yarmuth says. “We can really cause them fits.”
Whoever wins will be a happy man, and the recipient of several bottles of Kentucky’s finest bourbon—including Buffalo Trace, Woodford Reserve (Yarmuth’s “default bourbon”), Four Roses, Wild Turkey, Town Branch, Barrel House and Jim Beam.
The game starts at 9:45 p.m. EST on Friday.
While the two lawmakers have clear biases, Sente Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—who was student body president at Louisville as an undergrad and president of the Student Bar association while at Kentucky’s law school—has had some difficulty choosing sides. “You know, I didn’t get this far in my line of work by answering questions like that,” McConnell said Tuesday of the rivalry, with a soft chuckle. “That is the hottest issue in our state.”
McConnell had an embarrassing flub when his campaign released an ad this week—he is in a fiercely contested election battle with Kentucky’s Secretary of State Allison Lundergan Grimes—that accidentally included a clip of Duke’s 2010 championship instead of Kentucky’s. Matt Bevin, McConnell's primary challenger, has poked fun at the mistake, releasing an ad on Thursday showing McConnell in a Duke uniform.
“Most folks in Kentucky are either Louisville or Kentucky fans—there are not a lot of Kentuckians who are both,” says Barr, who calls himself a "diehard member of the Big Blue nation. ... But it is a source of pride for even Kentucky fans to know that we’ve got two great national powerhouse basketball teams.”