Mark Story: The Year of the Cardinals gives way to the Big Blue bounce back

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 3, 2014 

Louisville Cardinals guard/forward Luke Hancock (11) missed an off balanced shot as he was guarded by Kentucky Wildcats forward Julius Randle (30) and Andrew Harrison,5, as Kentucky defeated Louisville 74-69 on Friday March 28, 2014 in Indianapolis, IN. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

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  • Cats vs. Cards

    How UK and U of L have fared in head-to-head matchups in the 2013-14 school year:

    MEN'S SPORTS

    (UK leads 4-2)

    Baseball — Kentucky won 8-3 on April 1 and 4-2 on April 15.

    Basketball — Kentucky won 73-66 on Dec. 28 and 74-69 in the NCAA Tournament on March 28.

    Football — Louisville won 27-13 on Sept. 14.

    Swimming — Louisville won 212.5-87.5 on Jan. 25.

    WOMEN'S SPORTS

    (UK leads 5-1)

    Basketball — Kentucky won 69-64 on Dec. 1.

    Soccer — Kentucky won 2-0 on Sept. 6.

    Softball — Kentucky won 5-0 on April 2 and 7-3 on April 30.

    Swimming — Louisville won 193-109 on Jan. 25.

    Volleyball — Kentucky won 3-2 (17-25, 25-23, 25-20, 19-25, 15-11) on Sept. 10.

If you choose to apply a Star Wars motif to the 2013-14 Kentucky Wildcats-Louisville Cardinals sports rivalry, the appropriate choice would be The Empire Strikes Back.

In 2012-13, Louisville was THE story in college sports in the commonwealth, putting together a year for the ages. The Cards, you will recall, won the men's basketball national title and the football Sugar Bowl, while also playing in the women's basketball NCAA championship game and baseball's College World Series.

So far this school year, however, at least when it comes to head-to-head meetings between teams representing our two most prominent athletics programs, ours has been a (Big) Blue state.

UK has swept Louisville two games in men's basketball, baseball and women's softball. The Wildcats have gone 1-0 against the Cardinals in women's basketball, women's soccer and volleyball, too.

Overall, in 12 showdowns between Kentucky and Louisville in sports where teams face each other head-to-head (in other words, no multi-team events), UK has won nine of them. The Cats are 4-2 vs. the Cards in men's sports and 5-1 against U of L on the women's side.

Louisville's only victories so far in 2013-14 over Kentucky have come in football and in both men's and women's swimming.

That's a big turnaround from last season, when Kentucky men's teams went 2-4 against Louisville and 3-3 vs. the Cardinals in women's sports for a 5-7 record.

UK's success against Louisville is only a part of what, by one standard, is shaping up as the best all-around sports year in recent Wildcats history.

According to the Learfield Sports Directors' Cup standings — which, since 1993-94, has measured the overall strength of college athletics departments based on how they fare in NCAA championship competitions (plus football bowl games) — UK currently stands 14th in the country. Among SEC schools, only Florida (third) ranks higher.

Before finishing 25th last year, Kentucky had never before cracked the Top 25 in the Directors' Cup.

Louisville is also putting together another strong all-around sports year, currently 26th in the Directors' Cup rankings (through results of April 24). With tournament competition still ahead in sports such as baseball and softball, it's possible NCAA selection committees will provide U of L postseason chances to regain some rivalry swag against UK.

In the big picture, one of the most impressive things about Tom Jurich's tenure as Louisville athletics director has been U of L's ability to produce "breakthrough moments" in sports other than the school's signature, men's basketball.

Since 2005, Louisville teams have played in three men's basketball Final Fours, but also two women's hoops Final Fours, two BCS Bowl Games and made two trips to baseball's College World Series and one to the men's soccer national title game.

Conversely, other than the NCAA title won by the UK rifle team in 2011, Kentucky has not yet produced that defining non-men's basketball achievement (though, like U of L, the Cats have three men's hoops Final Fours and a national title since 2005).

That UK breakthrough, say a women's basketball or volleyball Final Four or a trip to the College World Series in softball or baseball, is the one thing lacking from Mitch Barnhart's impressive job transforming Kentucky into a genuine SEC-level athletics department with strength in sports across the board.

UK has been achingly close to a non-men's hoops signature achievement. Wildcats women's basketball has made the NCAA Tournament round of 16 four times in the past five seasons and advanced to the elite eight three times.

The Wildcats softball program has made the NCAA tourney super-regional (one step short of the College World Series) twice in the past three years. UK women's volleyball has been in the NCAA round of 16 three times since 2009.

If UK teams keep knocking on the door of something big, presumably someone will figure out a way to punch through at some point.

Whether that happens this year or not, Kentucky and its fans can take satisfaction in what has been a stout Wildcats performance this year against teams from the school that many Cats backers most want to beat.

When it comes to the UK-U of L rivalry, you might just say 2013-14 has been a nice year for the Wildcats.

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

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