UK-UofL game looks like a mismatch

Published 2:15 am Thursday, December 21, 2023

By Russ Brown

Kentucky Today

After years of competitive battles, the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry has turned into a consistently one-sided affair, and that isn’t likely to change Thursday night when the teams meet for the 56th time in the KFC YUM! Center in what looks like a second consecutive blowout by the No. 9 Wildcats (8-2).

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When the rivalry was renewed, courtesy of the NCAA selection committee, which put the two hated rivals on a collision course for the 1983 NCAA Mideast Regional Final in Knoxville, it was dubbed “The Dream Game.”

The high-stakes matchup produced an instant classic, with the Cardinals winning 80-68 in overtime to advance to the Final Four in Albuquerque, N.M., and provided the impetus for revival of the regular season series in 1983-84 after a quarter-century hiatus. Since then there have been many spirited showdowns between the two combatants that resembled March Madness in December.

One of the rivals was usually ranked, and often both were. There have been 19 times since ‘84 that both teams were ranked when they tangled, six times when both were in the top 10. Before their 2020 game UK was ranked in 14 consecutive polls and 19 of the previous 21. They have met twice in the NCAA Tournament since ‘83, with both games being won by UK – 69-61 in the national semifinals in New Orleans in 2012 and in the 2014 Sweet Sixteen 74-69 in Indianapolis.

However, the kind of hard-fought encounters that characterized the series most seasons have been missing in recent years because the dream has turned into a nightmare for Louisville, becoming lopsided in favor of Kentucky.

The Wildcats have won 12 of the last 15 games, including four of the last five, with the exception being 2020 when the Cards prevailed 62-59 in the KFC Yum! Center the day after Christmas against UK’s worst team under coach John Calipari. (The game wasn’t played during the 2021-22 season due to the pandemic). U of L hasn’t been ranked at any time in four of the last five years.

Three of those Kentucky victories have come by an average of 21.6 points. Last year, the Cats clobbered former assistant coach Kenny Payne’s first U o fL club 86-63 in Rupp Arena and UK will try to extend its dominance in the first game in the series that has been played before Christmas Day since 2006.

It’s not an exaggeration to proclaim that a Louisville victory would rank as one of the most remarkable college basketball upsets in recent seasons. How big is the mismatch?

In the latest NCAA NET rankings as of Tuesday, UK is 27th, U of L 266th. The Cards fare better in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, coming in at No. 172 to UK’s 21st. A check of some of the significant statistics also reflects the wide gap in talent and production.

The Wildcats are scoring at a breakneck pace, averaging 90.2 points per game, which is 6th nationally, while scoring 17.5 ppg on fast breaks (11th). The Cards stand at 74.5 ppg (195th) and have gotten just 5.36 ppg off breakaways (337th). Another glaring factor in UK’s favor is its proficiency from 3-point range, having connected on 40.78% (5th) vs. U of L’s 29.35% (310th). The Cats are averaging 10.4 treys per game to U of L’s 5.4 for a 30-15 ppg advantage.

If you are a Louisville fan looking for a shred of hope, one exists, although you have to go back 25 years to find it. On Dec. 27, 1997, the Cards – who were 3-6 at the time – shocked the Cats 79-76 in Rupp Arena by shooting 50% overall, including 12-of-22 from beyond the arc (55.5%) to UK’s 37.5% and 5-of-23 (21.8%). Eric Johnson led Louisville with a career-high 20 points and Alex Sanders recorded a double-double of 10 points and 10 rebounds. Reed Sheppard, whose son Jeff is a freshman guard on the current Kentucky team, led the losers with 18 points.

UK went on to win the national championship and finish 35-4, while U of L wound up 12-20.

Payne will meet with the media Wednesday to discuss the upcoming game, but he said before last year’s beatdown that it’s up to the Cards to make it a real rivalry again by ending UK’s dominance. Payne’s goal may have to be put on hold a little while longer because the odds of that happening Thursday night are wildly improbable.