Last season, in many ways, Louisville and Kentucky held the college hoops consciousness hostage.
For denizens of the Bluegrass State in areas both urban and rural, this was nothing new; UK and UL wage an intense year-long rivalry with immense cultural implications. For the rest of the country, the Final Four meeting in New Orleans offered the best possible glimpse: A rivalry game on the greatest stage, a duel between nemeses Rick Pitino and John Calipari, a battle between an unstoppably talented Wildcats team and a quirkier, less obvious Cardinals group.
These teams were also at the fore of what appeared to be the rise of a new college basketball nexus in Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky -- what our own Dana O'Neil, in touring all three states this fall, called "the intersection of past and present that has turned the area into a basketball autobahn."
That isn't going to change anytime soon. Louisville and Kentucky are high-performance autobahn-ready machines. Even if, in the short term, both are suffering some degree of mechanical failure.
The situation is obviously less drastic at Louisville. On Saturday, the Cardinals suffered a brutal home loss thanks to the impressive late work of Syracuse guard Michael Carter-Williams (and the brilliant first-half work by Brandon Triche, which kept the Orange in the game in the first place). Then, Tuesday, the Cardinals traveled to 11-7 Villanova, a rebuilding and mostly mediocre outfit these days (forget a blog post: "What happened to Villanova?" could be a multi-part "Frontline" series) and lost, 73-64.
Last night, when I cited last season's 90-59 Louisville loss at Providence on Jan. 10, I said that if "I'm a Cardinals fan, I'm not panicking." The response I got to this was surprising: As far as I can tell, Louisville fans are actually panicking. At the very least, they're not happy. That's understandable, but road losses in the Big East happen. Games like the one Louisville lost to Syracuse -- close, hard-fought contests that boil 40 minutes down to one possession, maybe two -- can go any way, especially in January. As long as Louisville scores at an even average rate (it didn't Tuesday night, posting just .85 ppp in Philly), its defense will hold it in good stead.
Kentucky, of course, has much more pressing concerns. We keep waiting for the Wildcats to turn it on, to come together, to play the sort of defense we've come to associate with John Calipari-led teams, even those that rely so heavily on freshmen. But each new UK game seems to bring with it new obstacles. For much of the nonconference season, for example, freshman swingman Alex Poythress impressed, while 2012's top-rated recruit, Nerlens Noel, largely disappointed. Now Noel is unquestionably the best player on this team: His ability to create blocks and steals is unparalleled in college hoops, he rebounds well, and his shaky offensive game has started to come around. (I've already filed Noel away for next year's fantasy basketball draft. He's going to be a sneaky steals/blocks beast.) Now, Poythress is struggling -- he finished UK's 59-55 loss at Alabama with five fouls in 15 total minutes -- and point Ryan Harrow, despite all his recent improvements, is still not the player Calipari needs him to be. (Harrow went 3-of-11 for six points and two assists Tuesday night). Even Archie Goodwin, the one reliable presence throughout November and December, has swooned in conference play.
All of which would be fine, were this a normal Kentucky team going through a slight midseason slump. As it stands, UK is at serious risk of missing the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats were a No. 10 seed in Joe Lunardi's Tuesday morning bracket before the Alabama loss, which might not hurt but certainly doesn't help. With the way the SEC is this season, UK has just a few chances to make an impression: two games against Florida, one against Missouri, and one against Ole Miss. The rest of the schedule (LSU, Georgia, Auburn, Mississippi State, et al.) is full of potential slip-ups and RPI hits. And we can't tell if Kentucky as a whole -- as something more than its talented young parts -- is even getting better.
We expected Louisville to be good, and for the most part it has been. Very good, even. We expected Kentucky to be good because Calipari's teams, no matter how young, almost always are. To see this team struggle more than any other since he began his remarkable run of success in Lexington has been jarring, even for impartial outsiders. To UK fans, elated with the 2012 national title but perpetually in search of another, preparing to spend the rest of the season on the bubble must be disorienting.