It Was the Best of Times, It was the Worst of Times
If you are a person who appreciates the broader themes behind sporting events, Saturday was a fascinating day of basketball to watch in the state of Kentucky. After seeing two diametrically opposite performances by the Commonwealth’s two main team, it became clear that Kentucky and Louisville are two programs headed in opposite directions…and quickly. At noon, Kentucky showcased its best offensive game of the season by winning in front of a hostile crowd in Bloomington. Then at four pm, the Louisville Cardinals suffered their second straight home loss against a non-BCS conference team for only the second time in school history by falling to Western Carolina. Kentucky is now the nation’s “hot” program, with ESPN following it and its star player John Wall on a near daily basis. Louisville is struggling (once again) for an early season identity and is (to put it kindly) sluggish in its recruiting for the future.
However what is fascinating is that this reality could not have been predicted by anyone at this time last year. In fact, the unbelievable reversal of fortunes of Kentucky and Louisville in the last nine months is almost unprecedented. Dont believe me? Take a look at where each program stood going into conference tournament week (March 10-13) just last season:
— Heading to the NCAA Tournament as the #1 overall seed and co-favorite to win it all with North Carolina.
— Two players on the team heralded as likely lottery picks
— The #1 ranked Freshman in America coming off a decent season and likely to return the next year.
— Commitment from Jeremy Tyler, one of the top 5 players in the Class of 2011 and considered to be the stone cold lock leader for another 2011 5 star, Marquis Teague
— A coach heralded by one national college basketball writer as a “college legend, now fully back on his game.”
— Headed towards its first season without an NCAA Tournament bid since 1991
— Coming off two seasons with three of the worst ten home losses in UK history
— Coached by an individual under fire, without the support of his players or the administration and no easy ending in sight.
— An ok 2010 recruiting class, but a lineup of future players likely to come to the program that are not believed to be of Kentucky caliber.
— An apathetic, disgrunted and divided fanbase.
Thats where we were just nine months ago. Now look at all the amazing developments of the past nine months:
— Pitino loses to Michigan State badly, denying the team of the Final Four
— Kentucky fires Gillispie
— Kentucky hires Calipari
— Kentucky gets commitments from John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, etc and produces one of the all-time great recruiting classes.
— Karen Sypher arrives on the scene and Pitino-gate begins on the national level.
— Jeremy Tyler goes to Europe, Teague doesnt commit and UL takes recruiting leaps on non-UL caliber players
— Kentucky becomes the story of college basketball early in the year.
— Samuels gets worse and UL loses to bad teams early
Thus in nine months, the two programs reverse direction in an unprecedented manner and in the process, dramatically reshape the balance of power in the Commonwealth. As a UK fan, it was difficult to look up nine months ago and see anything but turmoil ahead. The possibility of another year of Gillispie, the likelihood of player turnover and a divided fanbase meant that a two-year dip in performance during the final Tubby years had fallen to a two-year below average run in the Clyde years and had the potential to fall to a drop off of the planet in the following years. Then Clyde left, Cal came and the Cats reached the heights in which they now occupy….back on the tip of the tongues of the college basketball world, with the most marketable and cool player in the game and on the precipice of starting a run at the top that could last for a decade.
While at the same time, a UL fan has gone from the potential of a national championship nine months ago to a shaky future for a program with no clear direction. How will the team this season turn the ship around with shaky leadership from their best players and below-standard talent down the bench? Will their coach get through the Sypher trial without any more public relations issues and no long-term effect on recruiting? Will the team be able to get the players it needs to compete nationally with its current roster and a well-below-average class coming in 2010? Pitino is certainly a great coach and has had a potential Hall of Fame career…but does he still have the magic to compete with the younger and hotter name on the scene just 70 miles down the road? Nine months ago those questions werent even fathomed…now they are real.
All of this is not to say that the fortunes could not be reversed again. A great recruit here, a bad injury there could change the path of both programs yet again. But it is almost unfathomable to believe the movement of these two programs in such a short time. I remember walking away last year from the Louisville-UK game in Freedom Hall and thinking to myself, “we almost got lucky and won right there…I wonder when our next chance will come the way things are headed.” Now nine months later, the Cats will be significant favorites to not only beat UL, but contend for prizes on a much greater level. As we look back at the three game UNC-UCONN-Indiana run, it bears remembering what Calipari said about these games…”they will tell us where we are.” Well we have won all three and it is clear that “where we are” is in another stratosphere from where we were nine months ago. Our friends decked in Red likely agree…but probably arent as happy about their change as we.