My theory on what can make college women's basketball in Kentucky into a sport that more fully claims the attention of the commonwealth's average sports fans has always involved multiple steps.
First, you need the Kentucky and Louisville women's hoops programs to each become nationally compelling. Next, you need their rivalry to become galvanizing in its own right. Finally, you need truly great UK vs. U of L games.
As No. 4 Louisville (7-0) visits No. 7 Kentucky (7-0) at 1 p.m. Sunday in a sold-out Memorial Coliseum, all the ingredients seem present for a Cats-Cards women's hoops classic — except a game where both teams play at a high level would defy all the recent history of the series.
Under seventh-year coaches Jeff Walz and Matthew Mitchell, the women's hoops operations at both U of L and UK have become relevant on a national scale.
Twice under Walz, including last season, Louisville has played in the national championship game (and lost twice to Connecticut). Three times under Mitchell, including last season, Kentucky has advanced to the NCAA Tournament round of eight (and lost twice to Connecticut).
This is the second-straight year that Cats-Cards has featured a matchup of teams ranked in the AP Top 10.
"Two (Top 10) teams, that's big," said Kentucky freshman guard Makayla Epps. "And it's not Kentucky vs. Tennessee. It's Kentucky vs. another Kentucky school."
Galvanizing rivalry? Check. In covering UK-U of L women's hoops games in recent years, I've yet to see the first player from either team offer to shake hands before the opening tip.
"It's intense," Kentucky sophomore point guard Janee Thompson said. "Coming from Chicago, I don't think I understood how intense this rivalry actually was until I was in it and I was experiencing it first-hand in Louisville last year."
Epps, the reigning Kentucky Miss Basketball from Marion County, has already been at the epicenter of Cats-Cards enmity. She first committed to play for Louisville, but wound up signing with Kentucky.
"Even though it's women's basketball, this rivalry is starting to get real hot like the (men's UK-U of L)," Epps said.
Mitchell and Walz do not have the complicated shared history and mutual loathing society that John Calipari and Rick Pitino bring to the UK-U of L men's rivalry. Mitchell said Friday he and Walz have a "good relationship." Still, one senses competitive friction between the two.
"(Walz) challenges you in preparation to get your team ready to play because his team will be ready to play," Mitchell said. "And he's a very, very aggressive and tough recruiter, so that's something that has really helped me try to become my best."
With all this developing back story, what's been lacking in recent years is a great game between the Cats and Cards.
Starting with the 2007-08 season, the first five meetings between Mitchell and Walz were blowouts. U of L won by 15, then by 16, UK won by 34, then U of L by 26, before UK won again by 20.
Last year finally yielded a heart-pounding finish. Down 14 to U of L in the second half in the KFC Yum Center, Kentucky rallied desperately and took a 48-47 lead when Thompson drained a cold-blooded three-pointer with eight seconds left. UK's Azia Bishop then blocked Bria Smith's driving attempt at a game-winning layup with one second left.
All that late drama, however, came at the end of a game that was hard on the eyes. Kentucky shot 32.7 percent and turned the ball over 23 times. Louisville shot 38 percent and had 25 TOs.
On paper, this year's UK-U of L matchup holds the promise of a classic.
Led by flashy senior guard Shoni Schimmel, Louisville comes into the game averaging 88.4 points. The Cardinals are deep (nine players averaging from 5.0 to 12.9 points a game) and experienced (four seniors and four juniors in their rotation).
Led by standout senior center DeNesha Stallworth, Kentucky comes into the game averaging 98.1 points. The Wildcats are deep (nine players averaging from 6.4 ppg to 13.7 ppg) and experienced (four seniors and four juniors in their rotation).
"It's going to be crazy," UK's Epps said of Sunday's game.
To take the elevation of women's basketball in the commonwealth up another big step, let's mostly just hope the game is crazy good.
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.