Mark Story: Cats-Cards in Rupp suddenly vital for a reason few would have anticipated

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 16, 2013 

  • NCAA TOURNAMENT

    Louisville vs. Wichita State/Kentucky winner

    When: TBA
    Where: Indianapolis
    Radio: WMKJ-FM 105.5 Lexington
    TV: TBA
    Records: Louisville 31-5 (15-3 AAC)

The "ink" was barely dry on Rick Pitino's NCAA championship tattoo last spring when I started predicting that Louisville's visit to Kentucky this season would be the most anticipated UK game ever played in Rupp Arena.

After all, this Dec. 28 will be the first-ever meeting of the Cats and Cards with the programs as the two most recent national champions.

It seemed possible back in the off-season that UK vs. U of L would feature the two teams ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the country.

With Kentucky boasting eight freshmen on its roster, including six brand-spanking new McDonald's All-Americans, and with Louisville returning five of its top seven players from last season's title team, this year's UK-U of L meeting promised perhaps the starkest philosophical clash yet of the John Calipari-Pitino era of the rivalry. Which is superior, Calipari's new-school embrace of the one-and-done phenomenon or Pitino's old-school approach of building teams with players who stay long enough to become college veterans?

Yet now, with fewer than two weeks left before our state's annual hoops Armageddon, Kentucky-Louisville is shaping up to be crucial for a reason few would have contemplated in the off-season — because neither the Cats nor the Cards will enter the game with even one victory over a marquee foe.

No. 19 Kentucky will go into the Louisville contest having faced three teams currently ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 — and having lost to each of No. 5 Michigan State, No. 12 Baylor and No. 14 North Carolina.

No. 6 Louisville, playing a stunningly soft non-league schedule for a program with a veteran nucleus back from a national championship team, has faced one ranked foe. The Cardinals, too, took an 'L' from Roy Williams and the Tar Heels.

Injecting even more urgency on emerging victorious in this season's Cats-Cards grudgefest, neither the Southeastern Conference nor The American Athletic Conference shapes up as a target-rich environment for high-quality victories for whichever team fails to claim the Kentucky-Louisville victory.

In what became a shocking drop from 2012 NCAA champ to 2013 NIT chump, Kentucky got a harsh lesson last season in what can happen to one's NCAA tournament profile when you 1.) don't produce any marquee non-conference victories; 2.) play in a mediocre league that provides few additional chances for significant wins.

Right now, the only other SEC teams besides UK ranked in this week's AP poll are No. 16 Florida (which the Cats will face twice) and No. 23 Missouri (which Kentucky will visit Feb. 1).

At the other end, the SEC has five teams ranked No. 130 or below, according to Monday afternoon's ratings at realtimerpi.com. The league features only five squads other than UK ranked in the top 50.

Louisville, in a "bridge year" between the old Big East and next season's entrance into what should be a stacked Atlantic Coast Conference, is in a similar position regarding the strength of its current league.

In The American, U of L will get home-and-home dates with No. 10 Connecticut and No. 15 Memphis — meaning, after the UK game, the Cardinals are likely to have only four shots left at securing head-turning wins.

Of the nine teams other than Louisville in the AAC, only UConn and Memphis are ranked higher than No. 69 in the current realtimerpi.com ratings. Four AAC teams are at 141 or below.

In terms of merely making the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky's 2013-14 résumé — even with the Cats' defeats in their three highest profile games so far — is in better shape than a season ago. UK presently has three wins, Boise State (No. 52), Providence (80) and Eastern Michigan (95), over foes ranked in the top 100 of the RPI. The Cats will get another shot at a top-100 win before the U of L game when Belmont (No. 41) visits Rupp on Dec. 21.

A season ago, Kentucky did not earn its third victory over an RPI Top 100 foe until it beat Mississippi on Jan. 29.

To this point Louisville has only two victories, Southern Mississippi (No. 30) and Louisiana-Lafayette (59), currently in the realtimerpi's top 100. The Cardinals, too, will get one more chance for another (No. 63 Missouri State Dec. 17) before facing the Cats.

So rather than Cats vs. Cards in 2013-14 being huge for the reasons of hype and history we talked about all off-season, winning this season's UK-U of L showdown now seems vital because both schools need a victory badly to boost their 2014 NCAA Tournament profiles.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory.

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