UK Men's Basketball

Louisville could be big victory UK needs

When originally proposed, the so-called "Dream Game" did not interest proud Kentucky.

Kentucky, being Kentucky, believed it already played plenty of big games. So UK scoffed at Louisville's pitch that the in-state rivalry could be a basketball happening.

That background infuses Sunday's Dream Game with delicious irony. By beating Louisville, Kentucky can take a step toward re-establishing itself as, well, Kentucky.

That's how many college basketball observers around the country see this year's Kentucky-Louisville game. So does UK All-American candidate Patrick Patterson.

"If we can beat them, we'll have a bunch of eyes looking at us," he said last weekend. "A whole bunch of people will be saying, 'OK, this Kentucky team is pretty good.'"

Although college basketball's winningest program, UK's profile has drooped in recent seasons. The Cats failed to make the Associated Press pre-season top 25 in November for the first time since 1990.

Perhaps more telling, the Cats have lost five straight — and 16 of the last 18 — against ranked opponents.

Jim O'Connell, the long-time college basketball editor for The Associated Press, noted how another team used a victory over Louisville to enhance its profile earlier this season.

"The Louisville win did wonders for Minnesota, getting it in the top 25," O'Connell wrote in an e-mail. "So Kentucky has to get this one to make any kind of national move."

Like a discount shopper, Kentucky gets a chance to beat the Cardinals while such a victory still holds value.

As Jerry Palm of the Web site www.collegerpi.com noted in an e-mail message, "Beating Louisville would be a nice feather in Kentucky's cap, to be sure. But even the Cards have been a little disappointing so far."

UK Coach Billy Gillispie has dismissed the notion that Kentucky basketball has shrunk in significance. "In the basketball world, it's still a giant," he said of UK's program.

But Gillispie also acknowledged that "we have to do our job getting more exposure through winning."

Kentucky is 11-3, but eight of those victories have come against teams with a Ratings Percentage Index of 191 or worse, according to www.collegerpi.com. Those teams have a won-loss record of 45-88 against Division I competition.

Then there are Kentucky's losses to consider. Most painful, of course, was the opening-night loss to Virginia Military Institute (RPI of 149 as of Wednesday morning). Then there was North Carolina's 77-58 humbling of UK and a home loss against Miami (Fla.) that included a 20-point halftime deficit.

"Kentucky absolutely needs a marquee victory because the jury is still very much out on the Cats," said Tony Barnhart, who covers college basketball for CBS television and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "The losses to Gardner-Webb last year and VMI this year makes one wonder if there is some fundamental flaw in the team."

Of course, Kentucky faced an even steeper climb this time last year. The Cats won only six of their first 13 games. An observer as astute as Jay Bilas of ESPN gave Kentucky a "zero-point-zero" chance of receiving an NCAA Tournament bid.

Then Kentucky secured a bid by going 12-4 in the Southeastern Conference.

Bilas saw the Cats in a similar situation this season.

"A win over Louisville would be a major boost and would provide two wins over upper-division Big East teams," Bilas wrote in an e-mail. The other victory came against West Virginia (No. 16 RPI). "But even without another non-conference win of note, the SEC provides plenty of chances to build a tournament worthy résumé."

The SEC goes into the new year with a modest profile. Only one team — No. 29 Tennessee — has an RPI in the top 50. The Vols are also the only ranked SEC team. Six league teams have an RPI of 109 or worse.

Louisville, with a No. 36 RPI and No. 18 ranking, represents one of best remaining chances for Kentucky to make a splash.

Columnist Mark Bradley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote in an e-mail that an egregious loss to VMI must be offset with a significant victory.

"We live in an age of the ESPN and the on-line scoreboard," Bradley wrote. "And the cold truth is that if you're not in the top 25 (and therefore a continuing presence on the ticker/scoreboards) a lot of casual fans forget you even exist.

"It might sound like heresy to say this of the nation's winningest program, but Kentucky needs to get back into the top 25 to matter again on a national level. And I don't think it can do that beating the kind of teams it has been beating. It needs to upset a Louisville."

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