John Clay

Here comes Kentucky-Louisville in a college basketball season that already looks special

Louisville Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino laughed with Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari before the game as Kentucky defeated Louisville 75-73 on Saturday December 26, 2015, in Lexington, Ky.
Louisville Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino laughed with Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari before the game as Kentucky defeated Louisville 75-73 on Saturday December 26, 2015, in Lexington, Ky. mcornelison@herald-leader.com

It doesn’t seem fair, really.

We’ve just caught our breath from one of the more epic regular-season college basketball games in recent memory and now, four days later, we gear up again for one of the best — if not the best — rivalries in all the sport: Kentucky at Louisville, 7 p.m. Wednesday at the KFC Yum Center.

Get used to it Basketball Bennies, or maybe you’re already accustomed to the inescapable excellence of this 2016-17 season. How did we get so lucky? If you’re a fan of the sport, especially if you are a fan of basketball royalty, this campaign is shaping up to be one for the ages.

UCLA, with 11 national titles to its storied name, is ranked No. 2 in the nation. Kansas, three titles, is ranked No. 3. Duke, five titles, is ranked No. 5. North Carolina, five titles, is ranked No. 8. Even Indiana, five titles, is ranked 16th despite two defeats.

Why, poor Villanova, which won its second national championship last season, sits atop the current AP poll, yet the Wildcats have been elbowed out of the national spotlight by programs with even more hoops tradition.

Kentucky, with its eight pieces of championship hardware, belongs smack in the middle of the blue-blood mix. The Cats are ranked No. 6, but this week, they’re the buzz of basketball after last Saturday’s spectacular in Las Vegas in which John Calipari’s club clipped North Carolina 103-100 on the strength of Malik Monk’s 47 points.

Nor can you discount Louisville, with its three national crowns, its current No. 10 ranking, its 10-1 record and a Rick Pitino defense that the numbers proclaim to be the most efficient in all the land.

“We’re playing a top-10 team on the road,” Calipari said Tuesday. “This will be a hard game for us.”

It’s an unusual game as far as the UK-U of L rivalry is concerned. Christmas Day falling on a Sunday shipped the annual event from its usual marquee weekend date to a Wednesday night away from the broadcast networks. Instead, ESPN has the telecast with its top team of Dan Shulman and Jay Bilas on the call.

That makes sense. Kentucky has already been a part of two of the season’s best games, first the 97-92 UCLA win in Rupp Arena on Dec. 3, then the Spectacular on The Strip over the weekend. People are paying attention, too. The TV ratings for UK-UNC were through the roof. According to CBS, the telecast drew a 2.4 rating, 50 percent higher than any other game this season.

That might be a hard act for UK-U of L to follow except that it’s, well, UK-U of L.

“Everybody makes it life and death and it’s not life and death,” Calipari said before adding, only half-jokingly, “It’s worse that that.”

The commonwealth’s not-so-civil war aside, this year’s game could provide pertinent answers to important long-term questions. How will Kentucky’s robust offense fare against Louisville’s lockdown defense? How will UK’s fab freshmen react in front of all that rabid red? Can U of L score enough points to keep up with Kentucky’s dizzying pace? What scheme might Pitino devise to try to slow down the point machine that is the mighty Monk?

“I just want to get it over with,” Calipari said Tuesday, but surely that’s a minority view, especially this year.

In a college basketball season that’s already shaping up as something special, it would only make sense for Kentucky-Louisville to join the party.

Kentucky vs. Louisville in the Calipari era

Date

Winner

Score

Site

Jan. 2, 2010

Kentucky

71-62

Lexington

Dec. 31, 2010

Kentucky

78-63

Louisville

Dec. 31, 2011

Kentucky

69-62

Lexington

Mar. 31, 2012

Kentucky

69-61

New Orleans

Dec. 29, 2012

Louisville

80-77

Louisville

Dec. 28, 2013

Kentucky

73-66

Lexington

Mar. 28, 2014

Kentucky

74-69

Indianapolis

Dec. 27, 2014

Kentucky

58-50

Louisville

Dec. 26, 2015

Kentucky

75-73

Lexington

Wednesday

No. 6 Kentucky at No. 10 Louisville

When: 7 p.m.

TV: ESPN

Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Records: Kentucky 10-1, Louisville 10-1

Series: Kentucky leads 34-15

Last meeting: Kentucky won 75-73 on Dec. 26, 2015, in Lexington.

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