This is perhaps the most important Kentucky-Louisville matchup since the Final Four back in 2012. I don't think it's possible to argue that any game between U of L and Kentucky could be more important than that one, other than perhaps the very first meeting between the two teams back in the Mideast Regional Semifinals of the NCAA Tournament in 1983. That game had probably the highest drama value of any game in my memory. But the Final Four game in 2012 comes very close, and I think an argument could be made that it was even more melodramatic in the buildup to it. It probably depends as much upon when you were born as anything else. If you didn't get to see the first Dream Game, it's hard to understand the interest that went with it. But the two are very close.
I will argue that this season's game is third on the list even before it is played. Let's run down the reasons why:
Kentucky's recruiting class
The 2013 recruiting class is, on paper, the best in the Calipari era, and certainly the best that Kentucky has been able to do since recruiting websites have been keeping score. Why that's important is how the Wildcats started — some irrational people, and even some not so irrational people were kicking around the idea of a 40-0 team, the possibility of which was obliterated very early in the season, to relatively little surprise.
What has been a surprise is that Kentucky has dropped two more games, albeit close and difficult ones, to teams over which they were favored. This has led to a bit of angst in the Big Blue Nation, leading a minority of fans to conclude that the high-powered freshman strategy employed by Calipari since he got here may be too inconsistent to be desirable. I think the jury is still out on that one, but the opinion is not completely meritless as of this point in the season.
Louisville's NCAA Tournament championship last season
Many Kentucky fans are anxious to put Louisville's great season in 2012-13 behind them. Kentucky has not had a victory over the Cardinals in basketball or football in the last three tries, and as far as UK fans are concerned, that's about three times too many. Wildcats fans want to demonstrate that the hardware Louisville brought home last season really is in the rear-view mirror, and that UK basketball has returned from the lost season of 2012-13 to its normal dominant self.
Louisville's returning starters
Louisville has 2 returning starters back from last season, although one of them, Chane Behanan, has assumed an off-the-bench role and Montrezl Harrell has replaced Behanan as the starter, although Harrell is a returner as well.
This ties directly into the perception of Calipari's system, and if Louisville wins, the victory will be used by Calipari's critics and some college basketball Luddites to renew their argument that championships cannot be won by such young teams, and that the 2011-12 (and apparently also the 2009-10) teams were flukes, or alternatively that you need at least one returning junior or above in the starting lineup, or getting starter's minutes.
Both teams need this game for NCAA Tournament seeding
As of this point, neither Kentucky nor Louisville has a win against a team ranked in the top 25. Kentucky has had 3 tries so far, and each time come up short. Louisville has had only one foe ranked in the top 25, and it happens to be a common opponent with Kentucky — the North Carolina Tar Heels. Louisville lost to the Heels on a neutral court by a larger margin than Kentucky lost to them in Chapel Hill.
Unfortunately for both teams, they play (at least this year) in relatively weak basketball conferences with what now looks like few opportunities to play top ranked foes in their conference schedule. For Louisville, right now it looks like only the Memphis Tigers, whom they will play twice, will be there. It is also possible that the Connecticut Huskies may be in the top 25 as well, and Cincinnati could also possibly wind up there for a short time, even though that doesn't look all that likely.
Kentucky is faced with a similarly difficult situation, since only the Florida Gators and Missouri Tigers appear in a position to be ranked, although LSU has received a random vote or two and could wind up making the grade at some point in the season.
The bottom line is that both teams need this win pretty badly. While there doesn't seem to be a dominant team in college basketball this season, #1 seeds with only one or two top 25 wins seem somewhat unlikely to me. This game has become very important for NCAA seeding purposes.
Tying it all together
All the above points will act to escalate national and fan interest in this game, as the number of sub-plots in this particular contest is unusually high. To date, both teams have been reasonably careful not to create bulletin-board material like Chane Behanan did back in 2011, and this looks to be the kind of contest where both teams are very serious about winning it and not very concerned with who the opponent is. Louisville, because of their more experienced squad, will probably have more rivalry interest than Kentucky, where most of the main players have had little or no experience with the passion and pathos of the Louisville-Kentucky annual cage match. But even freshmen can sometimes be affected. Remember this?
I doubt we'll see any of that from Kentucky or Louisville in this game, but you can never know for sure. Sometimes, the passion finds a way to bleed over to the players.
What I do worry about in this game is a lot of foul calls if there even the least demonstration of excessively physical play or indications that the teams may get caught up in the moment. The new interpretations of the rules allow for a lot of potential hand-check calls, which could force the game into a choppy mode with lots of substitutions from two deep teams, leaving little energy for extracurriculars. But we can hope that the officials do a good job.
Make no mistake, though — the stakes in this game are very high for a regular-season contest, and it has more to do with schedules and recent history than actual inter-team loathing.