The 2005 Edition of the Annual Grudge Match
There has never been love lost between the University of Louisville and University of Kentucky football and basketball camps. These two groups are not only bitter rivals on the field and court, they truly do not like one another.
With respect to basketball, this mutual hatred came to a boil between the late 1970s and the early 1980s as Coach Crum lobbied for a chance to play the mighty wildcats. Coach Crum labored to build a nationally recognized basketball program under the shadow of the tradition and attention of the world renowned Wildcats, holders of five national championships [by 1978]. However, the UK camp publicly opposed this game. Why should UK provide such a prominent stage for Crum to strut his stuff, viewing the suggestion of games as lose-lose for the University of Kentucky basketball program. If UK defeated “little brother” Kentucky 's status is not enhanced due to the attitude that Kentucky is dominant and “should win”. Similarly, if Louisville could secure the game and leave victorious, Kentucky would lose some of it's gloss, stature in the state with future recruits, and Kentucky feared the erosion of some fan support across the Bluegrass State .
Coach Rupp had opposed this series because he felt it would divide the fan base, and in his 43 years at the helm, his UK teams only played Louisville 3 times, winning twice. This argument raged for several years. However, the status quo prevailed under the devout leadership of then Head Coach Joe B. Hall, a true disciple of Rupp. Even mighty CBS, owner of NCAA Tournament broadcast rights, entered the debate, publicly chastising Kentucky and Hall for being fearful of the growing threat, only 90 miles down the road. Coincidentally, the NCAA placed UK and UL on collision course in the NCAA tournament brackets in 1982, Kentucky needing only to defeat Middle Tennessee State in a first round game to meet Crum's dreaded Louisville Cardinals. However, Kentucky did not cooperate, losing to MTSU in Nashville 50-44. Not to be deterred, the NCAA placed these two teams on a collision course again in 1983, and they met in the Mideast Regional Final in Knoxville , TN.
What a game!
Unfortunately for the UK camp, Louisville prevailed 80-68 in overtime. In the immediate aftermath, the cry for regular competition rose to a clamor, reaching the Kentucky State Legislature where some introduced bills to force a regular season game between these two Kentucky teams. It seems that the political pressure was the element required, perhaps coupled by Kentucky's desire for a rapid rematch to avenge the disappointing loss, to achieve Crum's long time goal, a regular season game with Kentucky.
The first game of this regular season series occurred exactly 8 months later, November 26, 1983 . This would be the first game of the season for both teams, and this first game occurred on the floor at Rupp Arena in Lexington . Kentucky won 65-44, and the series was on.
The UK-UL series did not begin in 1983, but these teams had not played each other since the Mideast Regional in 1959 in which UL prevailed 76-61 over #2 ranked Kentucky leaving the overall series record at 9-3 in Kentucky's favor. However, for Kentucky and Louisville fans since the mid 1970s, THE SERIES began in 1983. As noted, the teams split the two 1983 meetings, and since that time, they have met each other annually, on a home and home basis, with one additional NCAA Regional pairing in 1984 [Don't you love those NCAA-CBS boys] which Kentucky won on its way to the Final Four.
The series stands today at 24-12 in Kentucky 's favor, and since that shot-gun wedding in March 1983, Kentucky holds a 15-9 edge.
This intra-state war only intensifies with time. Joe B. Hall led teams played Crum's Cards four times before he retired at the end of the 1985 season, splitting two NCAA tournament matchups and two early season pairings. Eddie Sutton's brief tenure as the Kentucky Head Coach produced three Wildcat wins, with Louisville only able to defeat Sutton's last team, in the midst of NCAA investigations and related turmoil.
Rick Pitino arrived in Lexington to rebuild the Kentucky program in the fall of 1989, and while losing to Coach Crum's Cardinals in 1989, his Cat teams earned an impressive 6-2 record in Pitino's eight seasons at the Wildcat helm.
This grudge match changed its tenor again with coaching changes at Kentucky prior to the 1997-98 season when Pitino left Kentucky to pursue his fortunes in the NBA with the Boston Celtics, and Tubby Smith took the reins of the Wildcat program. Coach Smith's first two teams lost to Crum's Cardinals, and his third and fourth teams defeated the Cards. Following the 2000-01 season, the University of Louisville replaced Coach Crum with none other than former Kentucky coach Rick Pitino. This singular move has elevated this competitive rivalry to new intensity.
Coach Smith prevailed over his predecessor's first UL team 82-62 in Rupp Arena. However, Coach Pitino found success at Freedom Hall the following year, and entered the Mecca of college basketball, Rupp Arena in December 2003 and handed #2 ranked Kentucky a lesson, 65-56.
The back-to-back Pitino/Louisville victories over the Kentucky Wildcats set the stage for last year's meeting in Louisville . Cat fans everywhere feared three consecutive losses to their “little brother” for the first time ever. Louisville established a large first half lead, and Kentucky fought back during the entire second half to position itself to win at the end. Kentucky scored the winning points on three consecutive free throws by Patrick Sparks with virtually no time left to play. Louisville finished the season as a final four participant.
This historic, tradition laden rivalry resumes in Rupp Arena when #4 Louisville comes to Lexington to take on a struggling Kentucky team. Louisville wants a measure of revenge from last year's loss, which Kentucky 's jaws snatched from the beak of the Cardinals, and Kentucky is looking for a team unifying victory, any victory, by any means.
Louisville stands at 6-0 while Kentucky has lost a rare three early season games in establishing its less than expected 6-3 record. However, Louisville has not played any legitimate competition this season, and has not left the friendly confines of Freedom Hall. Kentucky on the other hand has played a competitive early schedule, beating a good West Virginia team, and losing to Iowa , North Carolina , and Indiana .
Some folks say that Kentucky will be a slight favorite going into this game primarily on the basis of their home venue, and the 4 to 6 point advantage that Rupp Arena seems to provide. However, the Kentucky team is in a state of disarray following consecutive Saturday losses to UNC and Indiana on CBS National TV. These Cats seemed totally out of sorts in their most recent appearance, a 27-point defeat at the hands of Indiana .
This game will provide a better match up than Kentucky 's Indiana performance and Louisville 's undefeated record and lofty national ranking might suggest. Louisville has a relatively young team, venturing outside of its home territory for the first time against Kentucky at Rupp. Kentucky on the other hand, must find a floor leader, and must learn to play with intensity. I believe that Coach Smith will have his team as ready for this game as he possibly can. However, in my opinion, Louisville will leave Rupp this year with a rare and treasured victory, 70-67.
Copyright 2005 Richard Cheeks