In the most visible sports, the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry seems prone to competitive ruts.
Last month, U of L beat UK in football for the fifth straight year. Last Thursday, the Wildcats bested the Cardinals in women’s basketball for the fifth straight time.
Yet the deepest rut of all is in men’s basketball.
When Rick Pitino brings Louisville back to the coach’s old Kentucky home the day after Christmas, the U of L head man will be trying to snap a horrid run in our state’s marquee sports series.
Since taking the Louisville job in 2001-02, Pitino is 5-11 against Kentucky.
It gets worse.
In the 13 most recent meetings of Cats and Cards, Pitino is 3-10 against UK.
It gets worse.
Over his last 11 matchups against Kentucky teams NOT coached by Billy Gillispie, Ricky P. is 1-10 versus the Wildcats.
For Pitino, the red side of the U of L-UK grudge match has been the polar opposite from the heady days when his neckties were blue and he was leading Kentucky to six wins in eight tries (1989-1997) against Louisville.
Yet even with all that negative history working against Pitino, Kentucky fans might be wise to be a bit nervous about the Dec. 26 throwdown in Rupp Arena.
The reason is not because the Sagarin Ratings would make Louisville a slight favorite. Nor because the RPI essentially had UK (12th) and U of L (13th) dead even through games of Dec. 13.
No, the reasons for Big Blue concern are twofold. One, U of L (7-1) has looked far better this season than many expected. I predicted Louisville was as likely to end up in the NIT as the NCAA Tournament.
Instead, the Cardinals are shooting 51.6 percent and beating foes on the boards by almost 17 rebounds a contest.
It is true that these numbers have been amassed against a weak schedule (the average RPI of Louisville foes so far this season is 156.1; for Kentucky, it is 134.8). But U of L’s loss, when it went to East Lansing and played the socks off No. 1 Michigan State before falling 71-67, legitimized the Cards.
As John Calipari has gone 7-1 in the rivalry, a consistent theme has been superior UK length and athleticism smothering smaller U of L teams.
When Kentucky beat Louisville in the 2012 Final Four, the Cats’ starting five went 6-7, 6-9, 6-10, 6-4, 6-2; the Cards countered with 6-4, 6-6, 6-11, 6-2, 6-0.
When UK rallied past U of L in the 2014 NCAA Tournament round of 16, Kentucky starters went 6-6, 6-9, 7-foot, 6-6, 6-6; Louisville was 6-6, 6-8, 6-9, 6-foot, 5-10.
When the Wildcats ground out a victory over the Cardinals in a battle of unbeatens last season in the KFC Yum Center, UK starters were 6-10, 6-11, 7-foot, 6-6, 6-6; U of L went 6-5, 6-8, 6-10, 6-1, 5-10. (Of course, 5-9 Kentucky backup guard Tyler Ulis turned in the game’s pivotal performance).
This year, if both teams start the same five who began their most recent games, Louisville will have the height advantage at every position.
In beating Arizona State, the Cats started 6-5, 6-8, 6-11, 6-3, 5-9. While whipping Eastern Michigan, the Cards went 6-6, 6-10, 7-foot, 6-4, 6-2.
With 6-11 Kentucky freshman Skal Labissiere struggling with the transition to college basketball, it’s possible UK will rely on 6-8 Alex Poythress and 6-9 Marcus Lee for its frontcourt production.
Louisville will counter with a quintet of big men — 6-9 Jaylen Johnson, 6-10 Mangok Mathiang, 6-10 Raymond Spalding, 6-10 Chinanu Onuaku, 7-foot Anas Mahmoud — who will give the Cardinals a rare interior length advantage over the Cats.
Can Kentucky’s guard-oriented team get to the rim against all that Louisville size?
In UK’s favor is the fact the game will be played in Lexington. If you put stock in NBA mock drafts as an indication of talent, DraftExpress.com has three Cats — but no Cards —going in the first round in 2016.
There’s also the fact that Kentucky under Calipari has just seemed to have Louisville’s number.
However, what looked to many like an all but certain UK victory in the preseason no longer looks so preordained.
So if Pitino is ever to dig out of the rut he’s in against Kentucky, this year looks like a surprisingly viable chance.
Pitino vs. Kentucky
As Louisville head coach, Rick Pitino has gone 5-11 against Kentucky:
x - 2012 NCAA Tournament Final Four
y - 2014 NCAA Tournament round of 16