Kentucky-Louisville Rivalry Falls Short Of Being The Nation’s Best

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 3rd, 2012

Saturday’s Kentucky and Louisville game at Rupp Arena didn’t leave me with the impression that I was watching the best annual game college basketball has to offer. While many proclaimed Kentucky and Louisville to be the best rivalry in the nation (Here. Here. And here.), Kentucky’s seven-point victory on Saturday showcases exactly what is wrong in this series. The passion and intensity are there, but Louisville hasn’t been on the same level as Kentucky for a few years now. Even though just 76 miles separate the two schools, close proximity and basketball-crazy fan bases do not alone make this the nation’s best rivalry. Kentucky has once again become one of college basketball’s elite teams on a regular basis, and at least over the past three years, Louisville hasn’t met its Bluegrass State counterpart at the top. Kentucky has had a better on-court rivalry recently with North Carolina or even Florida, and the Cardinals are to blame.

The Pitino and Calipari feud has more drama then the actual basketball games in recent years

Why has Kentucky-Louisville fallen short of being the nation’s best rivalry?

First, the game hasn’t had the national relevance historically to make it the sport’s best rivalry. Saturday’s matchup was the first top five meeting between the two schools in its history. For comparison’s sake, Duke and North Carolina have played 11 times (over six different seasons) while both were ranked in the top five. The problem is that Louisville simply hasn’t maintained the same level of success as Kentucky over the years.  The Cardinals have been ranked in the top five for a total of 101 weeks while UK (more on par with Duke and North Carolina) has spent 404 weeks there. A number one ranking would surely boost the national presence of the rivalry. Kentucky has spent a whopping 83 weeks at the top spot in the rankings throughout its history. Louisville has spent just one lonely week there in 2009. Kentucky and Louisville is a great game for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, but if college basketball fans from around the country are going to tune in, then it needs to become a bigger game of national significance. And outside of a semi-public feud between John Calipari and Louisville coach Rick Pitino, it hasn’t been nearly as significant on the national landscape as Duke and North Carolina.

Even more important is what has occurred in recent memory. During the Calipari era, Kentucky has owned the rivalry, winning the three contests by an average of 10.3 points. Since his arrival in Lexington, Kentucky and Louisville are programs heading in opposite directions.


  • 2009-10      20-13     NCAA Round of 64
  • 2010-11      25-10     NCAA Round of 64


  • 2009-10     35-3      Elite Eight
  • 2010-11      29-9      Final Four

Does anyone expect Louisville to make a deep run this year? 2011-12 could and should further the discrepancy.

A rivalry indicates that there is some back and forth between the programs, but since Calipari arrived in Lexington, this series has been all Kentucky. Kentucky has now won three straight against the Cardinals, and Saturday’s seven-point win (thanks to a late spread-killing three) has been the closest margin of victory in the span.Over the past three meetings, the Cardinals have only held the lead on Kentucky for a total of three minutes and eighteen seconds (h/t to @Mengus22). This rivalry is not getting more competitive but rather becoming a runaway freight train that Pitino and Louisville have enormous difficulty stopping. Even the Kentucky players admitted on Saturday afternoon that Louisville is just another game. “I didn’t know nothing about this rivalry,” Kentucky freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist said. “I just wanted to win.” Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis agreed, saying, “We guess it’s a big deal for them,” referring to the fan’s passion for the game. But for the Kentucky players? “It’s another game to us,” Davis said.

Kentucky versus Louisville is a great regional rivalry, but it has fallen short on status as the nation’s best. For this game to live up to its billing, Louisville has to provide the Wildcats a run for their money and that hasn’t happened since Calipari moved north from Memphis. To be clear, this rivalry COULD (perhaps SHOULD) be the nation’s best, because all of the elements for a great rivalry are here. If Pitino wants to restore national significance to this storied game, then Kentucky and Louisville needs to be less about his personal war with Calipari and more about two of the nation’s best teams going at each other on the court. Of late, only one commonwealth team has lived up to its end and shown up for the annual duel.

Brian Joyce (333 Posts)

Brian Joyce is an advanced metrics enthusiast, college hoops junkie, and writer for the SEC basketball microsite for Rush the Court.

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