The No. 9 Kentucky Wildcats will hop on I-64 West on Thursday to battle the Louisville Cardinals at 6 p.m. ET, renewing one of the premier rivalries in all of college basketball. But ... there’s not really much buzz surrounding this game. Perhaps it’s because there’s not a mass fervor in the general public for college hoops just yet, especially right before Christmas.
Or perhaps it’s because one of these programs is an abject disaster at the moment. And it’s not John Calipari’s Wildcats.
Saying that Louisville is a mess under head coach Kenny Payne would be a gross understatement. Expected to give his alma mater a shot in the arm following the disappointing Chris Mack era, Payne instead delivered the worst season in Cardinals history by going 4-28 in 2022-23. That abysmal showing would’ve gotten most head coaches of “blue blood” programs axed, but the Louisville brass decided to double down and give him another year. That decision may set them back even further.
Louisville heads the matchup vs. UK sporting a 5-6 record and while that’s technically an improvement over last year in the win department, there’s not much to celebrate. The Cardinals’ five victories have all come against teams currently ranked 216th or worse in KenPom and they’ve been outclassed in games against fellow bottom dwellers like DePaul and Arkansas State. The team hasn’t established an identity on either side of the floor and is one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country at just 29.4%. They are currently ranked 177th in KenPom, 265th in NET, and if it wasn’t for a horrendous Notre Dame team with a first-year head coach, the Cards would be far and away the worst team in the ACC for a second year in a row.
And it’s not like things look to be getting any better anytime soon. Louisville currently has only one commit on board for the upcoming 2024 class, ranking 95th in the nation. Prized five-star prospect Karter Knox made an official visit last weekend, a move that could be viewed as Payne trying to shield himself from being fired. Apathy has already set in for the Louisville fan base as attendance has continued to plummet during Payne’s tenure. This isn’t just a once proud program falling on hard times. This is a once proud program falling into a black hole.
So that brings us back to Thursday’s game at the KFC Yum! Center, where Payne will face a UK program where he served as the associate head coach for several seasons under Calipari. The young, upstart Cats are fresh off a thrilling victory over North Carolina and as a 13.5-point favorite at DraftKings Sportsbook, they will most likely run the Cards off the floor this evening. The Yum! Center will also most likely be a sea of blue by the time the final buzzer sounds, giving a full illustration of the gigantic gulf separating these two Bluegrass rivals.
And that could be the final embarrassment that forces the UL brass to make a change. It didn’t have to get to this point, Cards.