The Commonwealth of Kentucky used to be the epicenter of college basketball. The University of Louisville won the 2013 national championship a season after the University of Kentucky won it all. Life was grand. Two historic programs were on top of the world. Amazing how much has changed in ten years.
Kentucky fans and Louisville fans don’t agree on much. Their teams aren’t members of the same league and sometimes they genuinely despise one another. There’s one thing they do share this season: disappointment. Both are unhappy with the state of their programs. Louisville (2-14; 0-5 in ACC play) has one of the worst records in the nation. Kentucky (10-5; 1-2 in SEC play) has been one of the biggest flops in the nation.
When the two met for their nationally televised annual grudge match on New Year’s Eve, some Kentuckians felt yawning indifference. Kentucky rolled 86-63, but this was hardly the high-wattage affair that once featured John Calipari vs. Rick Pitino. How in the name of the Hatfields and McCoys did we get here?
Being the coach of Kentucky is a great job, but it’s also a demanding one. You better win and you better keep winning. The heat on Calipari has been building. Last season’s shocking NCAA Tournament loss to No. 15-seed Saint Peter’s ratcheted up the pressure even more. Despite strong recruiting classes, the Wildcats haven’t reached the Final Four since 2015. That might not seem like a long time, but for a blue blood, that qualifies as a drought. It didn’t help Calipari that Kansas’ Bill Self won his second national championship with a roster that didn’t include a ton of blue-chippers.
There were hopes that Calipari could regain his mojo, especially with National Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe returning and incoming McDonald’s All-Americans guard Cason Wallace and forward Chris Livingston. The Wildcats entered this season ranked No. 4 in the AP Top 25 preseason poll. So far, nothing has gone according to plan. They’re 1-5 away from Rupp Arena with the latest setback being a 78-52 loss to Alabama on Saturday. Kentucky scored the third-fewest points of the Calipari era, and this was the program’s worst-ever loss to the Crimson Tide. The Wildcats dropped to 0-4 in Quad 1 games this season with losses to Alabama, Gonzaga, UCLA, and Missouri.
Calipari isn’t in jeopardy of being fired. But you have to wonder if he’s not at least contemplating an exit strategy. The previous coach to win a national championship at Kentucky, Tubby Smith, got out of dodge after 10 seasons when he bolted for Minnesota in 2007. If Calipari is considering a change of scenery, the opening at Texas is extremely attractive. Plus, perhaps Kentucky could benefit from a fresh start too.
Unlike Kentucky, expectations were low for Louisville. Former Calipari assistant Kenny Payne took over a program that was under NCAA investigation and suffered the embarrassment of having its 2013 NCAA title vacated. Payne is the fourth different Cardinals coach since Pitino was fired in 2017. His job is to bring stability and optimism to a school that’s been dealing with turmoil and negativity for several years.
Louisville was picked to finish 12th in the 15-team ACC. But no one could have foreseen that these Cardinals would be so terrible. They started 0-9, the program’s worst mark since the 1940-41 club began 0-11. Their victories have come against Western Kentucky (9-6) and Florida A&M (2-11). You could call them incredibly unlucky with four one-point losses. Or you could blame Payne’s lack of experience.
Among the major conferences (the Power 5 and the Big East), Louisville has the lowest winning percentage (12.5). No team in that group has fewer assists (9.0 per game) or more turnovers (16.7). Only one Louisville player has more assists than turnovers, and that’s leading scorer El Ellis (17.8 ppg). The honeymoon for Payne, who played for legendary coach Denny Crum and won a title in 1986, has been non-existent. After last weekend’s 80-72 home loss to Wake Forest, Payne called the latest defeat “not acceptable.” The new coach needs time to build but the poor attendance (11,986 for a Saturday afternoon game) at the 22,090-seat KFC Yum! Center is alarming.
Ultimately, Payne’s rookie season will be judged on how much his squad improves in the second half. Then, it will be up to him to bring in better players. In today’s college basketball world, you can build quickly, especially now that the program is in the clear with the NCAA. However, you also have to give prospects a reason to believe.
Kentucky and Louisville appear to be at a crossroads. The rest of the 2022-23 season will test the patience of fans. The glory days are gone, and who knows when the renaissance will begin.