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It's time for the "L" word

Yes, Wildcat fans, it's that time again.  Time to face the team of our traitorous former coach, the biggest rivalry game of each and every year.  The Cardinals are coming to town, and never in recent memory has that fact generated more concern among the Wildcat Faithful.

For those of us who live in Kentucky's largest city, this is always a time of catharsis and trepidation.  Nothing is worse than having to listen to jibes every time you walk into a place of business in this city from the inevitable Cardinal fan talking smack when you are wearing your colors.  It is especially bad in the south end of the Derby City, for as soon as you get west or south of Fern Creek, there is no escaping the inevitable.  That is where the highest concentration of Louisville fans reside, and even though there are certainly fewer Cardinal fans in Louisville than Kentucky fans, it is much closer than you might think.  I truly live behind enemy lines, and even though I am well removed from the hottest hotbeds of UK hatred, you can still feel the heat from here.

Two years ago, I was wearing my colors in the middle of Mall St. Matthews, normally a fairly friendly place where one doesn't expect to get assailed by Louisville partisans.  But a kid behind a snack vendor counter yelled out to me from 20 feet or so away, assuring me with a taunt that Kentucky was going to lose the game.  It turns out that was back in 2005, when Patrick Sparks was fouled on jumper from the corner and subsequently hit 3 free throws that will forever live in infamy here in town, and in legend everywhere else in the Commonwealth.  I was tempted (but only a little) to spend a few afternoons at the mall later that year in hopes of another encounter.  Relating the story, though, has been its own reward.

Since the renewal of the series in 1983, Kentucky has won 17 and lost 10 if you don't count the Elite Eight tournament game that provided the impetus for renewal, and since this is a Kentucky blog, I choose not to do so.  Since the renewal of the series, the Cardinals have won two in a row 3 times, and Kentucky has won 3 or more in a row 4 times, including the current 3-game winning streak we are on.  Since taking over the Cardinals from Denny Crum, Rick Pitino is 2-4 against the Cats.

History aside, it is time to look at the current state of affairs between the two teams.  I don't have to reiterate the disappointment this early pre-conference season has been for Kentucky, limping into the Louisville game at a measly 6-6, a record that simply boggles the mind.  Still, the Cats showed significant improvement in its last outing with an available but still gimpy Derrick Jasper and the fast-improving Meeks.  Recent word out of Lexington is that Meeks is approaching 100%, but Jasper is still day-to-day and did not practice yesterday.  Some incomprehensible coaching decisions and comments, along with the lack of success, has new Wildcat coach Billy Gillispie being questioned by the media and some fans, but the most recent game was a departure from some of the radical strangeness of the early season and a return to what most Cat fans recognize as sanity.

Losing to North Carolina and Indiana was bad enough, but tolerable under the circumstances.  However, losses to Gardner-Webb, UAB, Houston and San Diego had many Kentucky fans on the edge of some kind of rebellion.  To the credit of the Big Blue Nation, the vast majority has easily grasped the fact that a new coach needs time to work his magic, and we just weren't talented enough, especially dealing with numerous injuries, to hope to defeat the #1 ranked Tar Heels or the talented Hoosiers.  Most of the other losses, though, could not be reasonably attributed to a talent deficit, and that fact rankled many.  Tubby Smith quickly became the lightning rod for the teams failure, and since he is far away in the frozen North, perhaps Gillispie will one day thank him for absorbing most of the heat for this early season.

Louisville has surprisingly been going through their own struggles this year.  Picked as high as third by many national pundits in the pre-season polls, the Cardinals have done little if anything to justify that pollster confidence, and have dropped 4 games to inferior rivals, 3 of them in the comfy confines of Freedom Hall.  Derrick Caracter, the talented but mercurial Louisville forward, has been in and out of Pitino's dog house, and David Padgett went down with an early season knee injury that has kept him out of the lineup for 6 weeks.  Fortunately for the Cardinals and unfortunately for Kentucky, Padgett is mostly healthy again, logging 26 minutes  and scoring 13 points in a recent loss to Cincinnati.

Despite having what most observers, including yours truly, think is one of the most talented teams in the nation, Louisville continues to underperform, although arguably not nearly so much as Kentucky.  Despite this, little stock can be placed in the performance of either team to date as a harbinger for Saturday, as this rivalry has shown no such predictability in the past.  Kentucky is coming off arguably its best performance of the season, although against such a weak team that it is very hard to draw any real hope from the contest.  Louisville has shown a propensity to go into woeful shooting droughts from time to time, and that was all Mick Cronin needed to dump the Cards in Freedom Hall.  So is Louisville down and Kentucky up?  Hardly.  The Cardinals will be ready, willing and able to come into Rupp for their first victory there since 2003.  The Wildcats, as weak as they have looked this season, are closer to full strength than they have been all year, and that does make a big difference.

The upcoming game is a big one for both teams.  Louisville has had a dramatic fall from grace in the eyes of national pundits, and already everyone has forgotten the dramatic turn-around the Cardinals made last year.  I recall posting much angst and anger from the Louisville Internet contingency calling for the removal of Rick Pitino, only to be replaced by sheepishness when the Cardinals made a run to the Sweet Sixteen only to lose to the current Kentucky coach's Texas A&M team in Rupp Arena.  For Kentucky, a turn-around is mandatory, or it will miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1990-1991, when it was on probation.  A victory against the Cardinals would supply a much-needed resumé win for the Cats, especially after embarrassing losses to Gardener-Webb and San Diego.

There is much more to come on the big game here at A Sea of Blue.  For Cardinal fans, be sure to check out the Card Chronicle, SB Nation's excellent Louisville blog for coverage from the Cardinals.