LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Obviously, No. 19 Kentucky or Louisville will be pleased with winning their showdown if only because feel-good moments have been scarce this season for the in-state archrivals.
On balance, the host Wildcats (8-4) have celebrated more than the rebuilding Cardinals (2-11), who seem headed for a historically awful finish under rookie coach Kenny Payne, a former longtime Kentucky assistant. But that’s not really saying much for Kentucky, which is coming off a 89-75 Southeastern Conference loss at unranked Missouri and has beaten just one quality opponent (Michigan) among four.
Better was expected from the Wildcats after starting the season ranked fourth while welcoming back senior Oscar Tshiebwe, last season’s consensus national player of the year. The 6-foot-9 forward continues to be a double-double machine (15.8 points, 13.6 rebounds per game) despite missing the entire preseason and first two games following an October procedure on his right knee.
That just hasn’t been enough for the Wildcats, who have been outplayed by Gonzaga, UCLA and Mizzou, which led for 38:51 in Columbia.
“I know I've got a good team,” coach John Calipari said Friday. "We're not there yet, we're not playing that way. But the mentality of this is as big as all the other stuff.
“We've got to be physically on tune, but just as important, mentally. You've got guys that should be playing better that aren't. So, that's my responsibility to figure out why aren't they playing better. ... For them and for us.”
While there's plenty of time to improve, the buzz around Saturday’s nationally televised battle for Bluegrass supremacy at Rupp Arena is somewhat muted. The winner gives its fan base bragging rights, but the euphoria could be temporary because of both teams’ disappointing starts.
Not long ago, this showdown was a tough ticket and must-see TV in a hoops-crazed state known for drawing some of the nation’s highest viewership. Kentucky fans in particular reveled in jeering the Cardinals and then-coach Rick Pitino, who had lifted the Wildcats from NCAA sanctions in the early 1990s to their seventh title in 1996 and then won a championship with Louisville in 2013.
Pitino has since moved on to Iona, and the program that fired him in 2017 has yet to generate the same animosity with David Padgett, Chris Mack or Payne — unless the Cardinals pull off a miracle.
“Neither fan base is excited at all," longtime Lexington broadcaster Dick Gabriel said. "In the past, generally, at least one fan base has been fired up. For a while there it was Louisville and for a while there it was Kentucky. And it’s always been at its best when they both have things to be happy about.
"But, neither fan base has anything to be cheerful about right now. So there’s just kind of a dark cloud over this game.”
If that isn't discouraging enough, Big Blue Nation must choose between watching the rivals clash or Wildcats football, of all things. Kentucky will face Iowa for the second consecutive postseason in the Music City Bowl in Nashville and with a noon kickoff, the same time the Wildcats and Cardinals tip off.
Payne worked for 10 years on Calipari’s staff but the former Cardinal is now trying to guide his alma mater back from a scandal-marred period that most recently landed the program in the NCAA’s crosshairs following a federal investigation of corruption in college basketball.
An independent panel spared Louisville of major sanctions just before the season began. The bad news is those five years of basketball purgatory while waiting for an outcome has left the program in shambles.
One-point losses to Bellarmine, Wright State and Appalachian State contributed to an 0-9 start that marked the worst beginning for Louisville since 0-11 in 1940-41. There was a 12-point home defeat to Lipscomb that symbolized Louisville's deficiencies in every phase including cohesion.
Even with that, Payne has stressed to players through personal experience how important beating their main rival is for the school, the community — and their pride.
“I was fortunate enough to be going to school here when they said no matter what happened in the regular season, you beat Kentucky, you made your season," Payne said.
“The culture that I came from, before we play games, a group of players got together and talked (and said), ‘If you don’t play well, you’re not eating the pregame meal,'" he recalled. "Pervis (Ellison, the 1986 Final Four MOP) would go and take the plate and throw it in the trash. That’s the environment that I grew up here with Louisville basketball. There’s the care factor that I grew up with.”
Louisville remains a huge underdog as it works to jell. But a season after being ousted in the NCAA Tournament's first round by No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s, Kentucky is facing its own rotation and chemistry challenges.
Missouri thoroughly overwhelmed the Wildcats, whose only bright spot was outrebounding the Tigers 37-28 thanks to Tshiebwe's 19 boards to along with 23 points. Kentucky has lost two of three and could fall out of the AP Top 25 no matter what happens against Louisville.
In any event, the hope is that the rivalry game provides incentive to improve and some optimism, things that both schools need right now.
“I expect it to be an absolute war,” Calipari said. “They're coming in with the mentality (that) they're going to win the game. Don't expect it to be something easy.”
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