Dream Game may be a nightmare for Kentucky, Louisville
There are two high holy days on the sporting calendar in the state of Kentucky. Two days when only live birth or sudden death are legitimate excuses for missing either event.
One is the first Saturday in May, when the Kentucky Derby is run.
The other is the winter Saturday when Kentucky plays Louisville in basketball.
Not even bad weather can dampen the divinity of the Derby.
But heretically bad basketball has profanely devalued the second high holy day, the annual culture clash referred to in the commonwealth as the Dream Game.
Quite frankly, this season's contest on Saturday in Rupp Arena ranks as the worst of the 39 meetings in America's best basketball rivalry. Lordly programs with a combined nine national titles and 21 Final Fours come into this game struggling badly.
At the beginning of this week, the miserable Big Blue truth could be found right there in the RPI:
218. Utah Valley State
Then the Wildcats played Florida International and dropped nine more spots, even after winning. They're the lowest-rated team in a Southeastern Conference it has dominated since the league's inception in 1933.
Finding Kentucky in the 200s of the RPI is like finding a member of Britain's royal family lying in the gutter with a bottle of Ripple. It's inconceivable for the winningest program in college basketball history to be this bad: to lose at home to Gardner-Webb and San Diego, and to lead for a total of 48 seconds in both games combined.
The maligned Tubby Smith never had a loss that bad in nine seasons on the job. First-year coach Billy Gillispie now has two disasters within his initial 12 games on the job.
Kentucky's biggest win to date is, ahem, over Texas Southern. That should dazzle the Selection Committee.
Louisville is marginally better, having at least beaten UNLV and Miami (Ohio). But Louisville also started with higher expectations.
The Cardinals began the season ranked sixth in both polls and quickly recused themselves from the Top 25 after losses to BYU, Purdue and Dayton. They currently are skulking about at No. 106 in the RPI, with more than half of their nine victories coming against teams ranked in the 200s. Louisville is 12th in the Big East in RPI after ringing in the new year with a home loss to sketchy Cincinnati -- the Bearcats' first road win in nearly two years.
Last time Joe Lunardi crunched numbers for Bracketology, neither team was in his field of 65. Hard to imagine either was even close. If you want to know what a shocking development that is, consider: They've only held one of the last 22 NCAA Tournaments with neither the Cats nor the Cards.
How did it get this bad? Pick a theory, any theory:
Kentucky's best shooter, sophomore guard Jodie Meeks, has played 125 of a possible 480 minutes this season. He missed six games with a pelvic fracture, then missed another after straining a hip flexor. Meanwhile the Cats' most versatile player, sophomore Derrick Jasper, has played just two games and 42 total minutes after offseason microfracture surgery on his knee.
Louisville has played most of this season without its senior class. Captain David Padgett fractured his kneecap in the second game of the season and has only played 52 minutes of a possible 520 minutes. Forward Juan Palacios has played 64 minutes.
Largely for that reason, Kentucky has started 10 different players in 12 games and Louisville has started nine in 12.
But here's what else you need to know: The Wildcats had Meeks and Jasper back for that ghastly loss to San Diego (albeit in limited minutes for both), and the Cardinals had both Padgett and Palacios for that ghastly loss to Cincinnati. So you can't write it all off on injuries.
Kentucky fans have the luxury of laying this off completely on Smith, whose inconsistent talent procurement was the biggest factor in the Cats sliding out of elite status on his watch. (Nobody ever said Tubby wasn't a good bench coach. Nobody with a brain, at least.) The most obvious evidence of the scant roster Gillispie inherited is Patrick Patterson -- if Billy Clyde hadn't locked up the McDonald's All-American last spring, this team would truly be atrocious. Patterson leads Kentucky in scoring (17.7 points) and rebounding (8.2 rebounds).
(Of course, Gillispie's other star recruit from last spring, Alex Legion, quit the team after six games and has transferred to Illinois.)
Louisville coach Rick Pitino has recruited plenty of talent. What he hasn't done is gotten it all into uniform on a consistent basis. Post man Derrick Caracter was a risk, given a prep career littered with discipline problems, and he's lived down to suspicions by being suspended more times than most can count. Center Clarence Holloway tried to go pro and failed, then came to school and was diagnosed with a heart condition that has kept him out. Freshman forward George Goode is academically ineligible.
And then there's this: Career 1,600-point career scorer Chris Lofton of Tennessee is a Kentucky native who would happily have gone to either in-state school if either had offered him a scholarship.
• Indecipherable rotations
First-year Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie has succeeded in mystifying fans (and probably his own players) with his lineups.
Post man Mark Coury started every one of UK's first 11 games, despite averaging just 3.1 points and 3.0 rebounds. Point guard Michael Porter has started nine games with little (2.9 points, more turnovers than assists) to show for it. Freshman A.J. Stewart made his first career start against San Diego -- then was benched after five minutes and never got in again. Meeks played the final 14 minutes against the Toreros but none of the first 26.
And senior guards Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley -- by every measure Kentucky's most experienced and productive returning players -- must not know where they stand with their new coach. He's been publicly critical of both at times and seems especially disdainful of Crawford, a 1,000-point career scorer who has only started five games.
At Louisville, sophomore forward Earl Clark has gone from indispensable to almost invisible over the holidays. He never played fewer than 30 minutes in the Cards' first 10 games and now hasn't played more than 27 in the last three. He's averaging a double-double but wasn't even on the floor for several key possessions against Cincinnati, and Caracter only played 14 minutes with the return of Padgett.
• Getting the point
Neither coach is very happy with his best point guard.
Edgar Sosa looked like he was morphing into a star at the end of last season, especially after scoring 32 points against Gillispie-coached Texas A&M in the NCAA Tournament, but he's been a mess most of this season. Poor defense, bad attitude, awful foul shooting and selfishness with the ball have led Pitino to lean more on junior Andre McGee, a solid guy who is far less gifted than Sosa. McGee has played one less minute than Sosa on the season but taken 28 fewer shots.
Gillispie and Bradley are trying to make it work at Kentucky, despite Bradley's iffy 1.2 assist-turnover ratio and liabilities stopping penetration. The New Yorker is more of a scoring point than a distributor: In games in which he's played 30 or more minutes, he's averaged 14 shots. Jasper might provide another alternative at point as his game readiness improves.
Basketball fans in the commonwealth can be quick to deify a coach. The names Rupp, Crum and Pitino have been spoken with reverence and awe over the years. But they'll turn on a coach quickly as well, as the ultra-short Gillispie honeymoon and the growing barking at Pitino have proved.
Some Kentucky fans have begun publicly wondering if the school shouldn't capitalize on Gillispie's curiously unsigned contract and cut its losses. Now. Or, at the very least, in the spring.
(It seriously would behoove the man to sign the deal, because he has a shot at losing 20 games this season. And that can get anyone fired at Kentucky.)
Pitino was catching flak at this time last year as well, when the Cardinals started even worse. He turned that season around crisply and won 24 games, and everyone felt chastised for questioning a future Hall of Famer. But it wasn't supposed to happen again, not with a team featuring three players Pitino publicly said would probably go pro this spring (Clark, Caracter and Terrence Williams).
Maybe this year's Dream Game will be the start of an epic bounce-back for one of these two teams. But it will be truly miserable to lose what's shaping up to be the worst game in the history of the country's best rivalry.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
ESPN TOP HEADLINES
- Royals edge Giants, grab 2-1 Series lead
- Mariota throws 5 TDs as Oregon trumps Cal
- PGA ousts prez for Poulter 'girl' comments
- Kobe salutes Nash: Ailing PG gave it his all