LOUISVILLE (WAVE) - Since 1983, when Kentucky's 7-foot-1 Sam Bowie shot-blocked Louisville all the way back to Waddy-Peytona, the intra-state series has seen just about everything – incredible upsets, last-second heroics, blowouts, smart coaching moves and dumb ones. You name it, the UK-UofL rivalry has given it to us somewhere along the way.
So Friday's renewal in Rupp Arena will give us something completely new because the circumstances are unique. Never before have we seen the youngest team in the nation (One-and-Done U. in Lexington) take on a rival with an abundance of talent and experience (UofL). Never before we have seen both teams have so many tall players without a single one who's a dominant inside force in the mode of Anthony Davis of UK and Montrezl Harrell of UofL.
But mostly, never before have we seen a callow, novice coach (UofL's David Padgett) match wits with a Hall-of-Famer who has one national title to his credit and who has taken three different programs to the Final Four (UK's John Calipari).
At this point, neither fan base seems particularly excited about either team. The Cardinals have lost to the two best teams they've played – Purdue and Seton Hall – and have struggled to beat some no-name opponents. The Wildcats also have lost twice, to Kansas and UCLA, and for the first-time in the nine-year Calipari era, do not have a dead-certain top-10 NBA draft pick on their roster.
We will now pause for a brief football commercial.
Right after the basketball game on Friday, the 7-5 football Wildcats will play Northwestern in the Music City Bowl. I think Northwestern wants to be there more than UK, so I'm taking the Big Ten Wildcats by seven. On Saturday, the 8-4 football Cardinals will meet Mississippi State in the Taxslayer Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., a city that Lamar will make his own in what probably will be his last collegiate game. Cards by 21.
We will now return to our regular programming.
Although UK has drawn less-than-capacity home crowds a few times this season, you can bet that Rupp's 23,500 seats will be jammed for UofL. Some of the younger fans no doubt will wear FBI shirts and hats in order to call attention to the scandal that led to the dismissals of basketball coach Rick Pitino and athletics director Tom Jurich.
Say what you will about Pitino, but he was the straw that stirred the drink of this series from 1989 through last season. As the UK coach, he was 6-2 against UofL before departing for the NBA after the 1997 season. When he returned to the commonwealth in 2000, but this time as the UofL coach, he committed a cardinal sin, so to speak, that many UK fans refused to forgive, and never mind the miracles he performed while raising UK from the dead in the wake of the Eddie Sutton scandal.
In 16 regular-season games against UK, Pitino had a 6-10 record. He was 2-6 against Calipari. He came to detest the series he once embraced because he couldn't seem to understand the level of animosity that many UK fans held for him. If he thought them ungrateful, he was naïve. He was regarded as "Traitor Rick," and that was never going to change.
I have no idea whether Pitino will watch the game. But I'll bet his dear friend Ron Carmichle will be in Rupp, rooting for the Cards. That's because his daughter is married to David Padgett. Oh, what a tangled web does basketball in Kentucky weave.
Padgett's players like their coach, but it remains to be seen if they will play as hard for him as they did for Pitino. At 6-10, Padgett played center for Pitino for three seasons. He was so smart, and such a good passer, that he became a "point center," starting the half-court offense from the top of the key.
The Cards' big men figure to benefit the most from his experience, and 6-10 junior Ray Spalding of Louisville Trinity seems more on the cusp of a major break-through than 7-0 senior Anas Mahmoud, who still has trouble finishing shots, or 6-11 freshman Malik Williams.
Still, neither team has a big man who thrives on rebounding and blocking shots. Kevin Knox, the 6-9 freshman who leads UK in scoring with 15.7 points per game, seems more comfortable on the perimeter than the blocks. Sophomores Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones – 6-9 and 6-10, respectively – are passive. The possible break-through big man could be 6-11 freshman Nick Richards, who's averaging 8.5 points and 6.5 rebounds in limited playing time for Kentucky.
UK doesn't have a leader to match UofL senior Quentin Snider, the hero of the Cardinals' win last season in the KFC Yum! Center. The best all-around players for both teams are swingmen – 6-5 redshirt freshman Hammadou Diallo of UK and 6-7 junior Deng Adel of Louisville. The Cards' most energetic player is freshman point guard Darius Perry, who backs up Snider, and the UofL fan base still is waiting for 6-6 sophomore V.J. King to put all his skills together on the same night.
In the area of three-point shooting, which seems to decide far too many games these days, both teams have ranged from glorious to abysmal. But in 6-foot sophomore Ryan McMahon, the Cards may have a player who can come off the bench and light up the scoreboard. If that develops, McMahon would join the list of unlikely heroes who sometimes come out of nowhere to steal the headlines. Do the names Cedric Jenkins, Patrick Sparks or Josh Henderson mean anything to you?
The circumstances are so unique that it makes intelligent prognosticating almost impossible. Nothing that happens should be a surprise. But fools go where angels fear to tread. I think UofL can match UK's talent, size and depth. So I'm going to say that playing experience will be more important than coaching experience.
Cards 78, Cats 75.
Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter who contributes regular columns to WAVE3.com.