With the game two weeks away, a reminder arrived of the intensity of the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry.
It came courtesy of Arkansas Coach John Pelphrey, the Kentucky native and UK "Unforgettable" who can't bring himself to say the "L" word.
Early last week, Pelphrey refused to say "Louisville" while discussing the Cardinals' 94-75 victory over Austin Peay. Arkansas was Austin Peay's next opponent four days later.
Pelphrey attributed U of L's victory to the "improved play by whatever the name of that school is. I can't even say it."
Fans of a certain age will recall that Pelphrey's dislike of Louisville showed in his playing days when he got into an altercation with U of L's James Brewer. The two were separated before any real damage was done.
But for Pelphrey to mimic former Ohio State Woody Hayes, who found it difficult to say the word "Michigan," seems strange because his former UK coach, Rick Pitino, now leads the Cardinals.
"I usually call it the University of Pitino," Pelphrey said when asked about Louisville by the Arkansas press corps.
But when talking with the media on Wednesday, Pelphrey twice said "Louisville" as he again discussed U of L's game against Austin Peay.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sportswriter Bob Holt then alerted Pelphrey about the slip. "He seemed shocked, looking like a minister who had been told he cussed during a Sunday sermon," Holt wrote.
Pelphrey initially denied saying the "L" word. But when a reporter noted the power of tape recorders, Pelphrey conceded.
"I'm not perfect," he said.
Nick Fasulo recently launched a college basketball blog titled "Searching For Billy Edelin" (http://searchingforbillyedelin.com). It's a reference to the once promising Syracuse guard gone astray. The blog hopes to cover college basketball.
"I recently joined the workforce (pr/marketing) and find that blogging about what you love is a great release and, essentially, a hobby," Fasulo said.
Fasulo asked me to respond via e-mail to a few questions about the SEC. With SEC play beginning in three weeks, here's a sampling. Note that the e-mails were exchanged before Mississippi lost point guard Chris Warren to a season-ending knee injury.
Q: What are your general thoughts on the upcoming SEC season?
A: The league appears to be down this season. As I type, the league teams have a 1-4 record against ranked teams and an 8-12 record against teams from the other five so-called power conferences. Tennessee is a huge favorite to win the SEC for a second straight season. In a media pre-season poll, I voted for Kentucky to win the league. I may live to regret that vote, but I think Kentucky will out-steady Tennessee.
Q: How many NCAA tournament bids do you see this league receiving?
A: At least five bids. Maybe six or seven. Tennessee, Kentucky, LSU and Florida seem almost locks to get bids at this point. I'd look to South Carolina, Vanderbilt and perhaps Ole Miss and Auburn as other possibilities.
Q: What will we say about this s eason when it's all said and done?
A: It will be a transition year from the seasons when Florida won national championships to 2009-10 when teams like Kentucky and Florida will join, say, Tennessee as serious players on the national scene. As I type, Tennessee is the only ranked SEC team and the Vols are not in the top 15.
Q: How long or short is Billy Gillispie's leash in Lexington? What is the tone from the fans? Are Wildcat fans understanding right now, or is it a "just win baby" approach?
A: Billy Gillispie is in a transition period where he's trying to return Kentucky to elite status. Fans are relatively patient. Gillispie won a lot of good will last season when Kentucky had a 6-7 record in the pre-conference portion of the schedule, then went 12-4 in the SEC. With many recruits on the way, fans anticipate better things ahead.
There's still a "just win baby" atmosphere as evidenced by a famous caller to a radio show [in 1998] who said, "Although the team's record is 22-3, I haven't given up yet." But fans see that the talent level does not constitute overwhelming superiority (which is the standard).
Q: What teams do you see over-achieving this season and what, if any, unheralded players could make a splash in league play?
A: I like Ole Miss and Auburn because they have experienced and talented guards. I've backed off Ole Miss a bit because injuries have sidelined more than one of its guards. I also like South Carolina because of Devan Downey, who isn't unheralded but maybe under-appreciated because his team hasn't done much.
Q: Best rivalry going in the conference right now?
A: It's been Kentucky and Florida, which has been the CBS final weekend matchup for several years. Tennessee-Vanderbilt has been spicy since Bruce Pearl became Tennessee coach and revived the Ray Mears practice of wearing a bright orange sports coat in games against Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
Kentucky and Tennessee, which has been a natural rivalry dating back to the 1960s (with dormant periods in that time), has the potential to be an excellent rivalry going forward.
Q: Through your travels on the beat, which campus is your favorite to visit?
A: I always enjoy going to Florida, in part because of the promise of warm weather in January or February. The students are fun, not abusive, but needling in a fun way (for the most part). Also the O'Connell Center has an old gym atmosphere with the fans close to the court. And, not to forget, the games usually feature two good teams.
The all-time best was Barnhill Arena at Arkansas. Fans close to the court. Enthusiasm not seen at any other SEC arena. Quirky angles for seats in stands. Alas, Arkansas moved into the new arena in 1994, so I only saw Kentucky play in Barnhill Arena once.
Q: During your career, what is the best team you have seen play live?
A: The team that immediately comes to mind is Duke, 1991-92. That's the team that beat Kentucky in the NCAA East Region final on the famous Christian Laettner shot.
Kentucky's best team was probably 1995-96, which lost only twice en route to the national championship. The 1983-84 team, which advanced to the Final Four, was also one of Kentucky's best in my time.
Best SEC opponent in my time has to be the Florida national championship teams of 2005-06 and 2006-07. They were the best in terms of consistently excellent play.
Q: We love revering the former college basketball player who couldn't quite make it at the next level. Is there a player you absolutely loved watching at some point in your career, but now he's a complete afterthought to the common fan?
A: Two players come to mind. Ed Davender was a Kentucky guard in the mid-1980s who made an impact as a freshman and was a solid contributor throughout his career. He finished with more than 1000 points and was the team's best perimeter defender, yet he was never a fan favorite.
The other player is Richard Madison simply because he was a joy to interview. He almost always had a smile on his face and was a good-time Charlie no matter the circumstances (which maybe did not endear him to his coaches).
True story: As the team rode a bus into Hong Kong on a tour of the Far East, the guide pointed out that 100,000 people lived in a certain apartment building. To which Richard said, "I bet you could (pass gas) and 10,000 people would smell it."
When Billy Gillispie and Tennessee State's Cy Alexander shake hands in Rupp Arena on Monday night, maybe they can discuss the National Association of Basketball Coaches public do-better pronouncements involving the Kentucky coach.
Alexander is a member of the NABC board, which disapproved of Gillispie's scholarship offer to an eighth-grader and his staging of a Midnight Madness before the NCAA-approved date. Neither action broke any rule, but the NABC considered each act as damaging to the image of coaches.
When asked about the NABC actions, Alexander noted the potential public relations problem Gillispie created.
Of offering a scholarship to eighth-grader Michael Avery, Alexander said, "We as a board thought it sends the wrong message nationally of what college coaches are about. It was nothing against Coach Gillispie."
The early Madness violated "the spirit of what we agreed upon with the NCAA. That wasn't in the best interest of what we're allowed to do."
The NCAA allowed basketball coaches two hours a week to work with players prior to the official start of practice. After learning that the NCAA had no specific prohibition, Gillispie (and a handful of other coaches) saved the two hours for a Madness the week before other schools.
The NCAA subsequently adopted a ban on early Madness celebrations.
This is a particularly fallow period for UK basketball. The program hasn't been in a Final Four since 1998, the longest such absence in the history of the program. And the Cats failed to make The Associated Press pre-season top 25 for the first time since 1990.
When playing ranked opponents, Kentucky has lost five straight and 16 of the most recent 18 games.
UK Coach Billy Gillispie went on a tour of ESPN's complex in Bristol, Conn., last week. The tour, called a "car wash" by ESPN insiders, involves appearing on as many radio and TV shows as will have you. Those appearances mean valuable exposure without an uncooperative opponent trying to win. This enabled Gillispie to toot UK's horn and listen to various hosts salute a dynasty.
Given the short shelf-life of dynasties (see Indiana basketball or Michigan football), might Gillispie's tour been a calculated attempt to prop up Kentucky's profile?
Gillispie scoffed at the notion.
"I don't think Kentucky would be considered (having a) lower profile," he said on Friday. "In the basketball world, it's still a giant."
But Gillispie also acknowledged that "we have to do our job getting more exposure through winning."
UK did ask for the tour. Nick Dawson, ESPN's Senior Program Manager for Men's College Basketball, said that UK spokesman DeWayne Peevy first called in September to try to arrange a tour. That was long before any of this season's setbacks.
Last week was agreed upon because there were no games because of final exams. Dawson said he did not get the impression that UK sought a public relations boost.
Dawson described such "car washes" as a win-win. The ESPN shows get a high-profile guest. And the schools? "It's good for them from an awareness standpoint," he said.
Bill Hodges update
In 1979, Bill Hodges coached Larry Bird and Indiana State to the national championship game. His name came up last week because he coached Appalachian State big man Isaac "Ike" Butts on the high school level.
Hodges now teaches world history in a high school in Roanoke, Va., to be near his grandchildren.
"I hated retirement," he said.
Hodges has Kentucky ties. His father was from Horse Cave and his mother from Glasgow.
To "Wildcat" Wally Clark. He turned 58 on Saturday.
Clark's claim to UK basketball fame is being first in line for tickets to Big Blue Madness. He's held that distinction on several occasions and most famously camped out in front of Memorial Coliseum for 39 days one year.
This time of year Clark fades into the great blue mass rooting for Kentucky and — at the risk of redundancy — harboring great expectations.
"If we lose three in the SEC, that's the most we'll lose," Clark said.
Clark even volunteered to list the three losses: at Tennessee, at Florida and (voicing some doubt) at Arkansas.
"If there's three losses, that's the three I'd pick," he said. "But I really don't think there will be more than one."