The sharp blade of parity has cut its widest swath across the Bluegrass. Louisville, the defending national champ, and Kentucky, a final-eight team last year, have each tumbled out of the Top 20 and now occupy places in the computer ratings among arrivistes like New Orleans, San Diego and Southwest Missouri State.
Both the Cats and the Cards have suffered losses so humbling this season that their coaches imposed postgame quarantines from the press—Louisville after a 64-48 loss to Memphis State, Kentucky after a 76-41 rout by LSU. Most amazing, both those defeats occurred at their respective Old Kentucky Homes, where, as Alabama coach Wimp Sanderson says about UK, "It's against the rules" for them to lose.
The rosters of both teams feature enough McDonald's schoolboy All-Americas to feed a busload of hungry coaches. So what gives? Is Bellarmine really the best team in the Commonwealth? The Knights from the tiny college in Louisville beat Kentucky Wesleyan, which beat Campbellsville, which beat Centre, which beat Austin Peay, which lost by only a deuce to Kentucky, which routed Louisville, which beat Western Kentucky. Let's match UK with the real power from Louisville and settle this question once and for all.
Kentucky coach Eddie Sutton has a house cat named Lionel Richie...and apparently 12 Wildcats named Sybil. "Some nights the moon will be right, and we'll play well," says Sutton. "Some nights the moon will just be in the sky, and we won't."
Kentucky's abiding problem has been the void left when forward Winston Bennett suffered a preseason knee injury. That left the green Robert Lock and spotty Richard Madison, the much-ballyhooed Master Blaster, to hold down the middle. The rest of the the 16-8 Cats consider "the paint" to be the 19'9" three-point arc. The outside shooting of starting guards Rex Chapman, Ed Davender and James Blackmon—who are a combined 42.3% in SEC play—determines UK's fate each time it takes the court, and makes the team especially vulnerable to man-to-man defenses with quick guards. "If you pass all the time, some games you're gonna get a lot of touchdowns," Sutton says. "But some games you're gonna throw a lot of interceptions."
Indeed, Kentucky's euphoria after beating Louisville in Freedom Hall by 34 points on Dec. 27 was superseded by the gloom of losing to LSU in Rupp Arena by 35 on Jan. 18, and losing big at—say it ain't so, Uncle Adolph—Mississippi and Florida. Says Ole Miss guard and baseball shortstop Keith Kessinger, "I always thought if we beat Kentucky I'd have two hits." Adds the Gators' senior guard Andrew Moten, "Beating Kentucky was an upset my freshman year. It's not considered one anymore."
Kentucky's abysmal lows have only provided grist for Lexington's ever-lively rumor mill. After one game, Chapman, the freshman, asked a reporter to linger so he could deny reports that teammates like Davender and Blackmon were jealous of his celebrity. Racial tension isn't likely to be a problem. Chapman rooms with Bennett, who's black; he also likes the Fat Boys, has dated black coeds and wears so much gold that when he walked into the dining hall recently, a Wildcat football player was heard to crack, "Here comes Rex in his Mr. T starter's kit."
If there is jealousy, it might result from upperclassmen doing double takes at the I [Heart] REX T-shirts that are moving briskly in Lexington and other signs of Chapman adulation. "We've had to do a lot of counseling," Sutton says. "I've told Rex and I've told his teammates, we can't control what the media and the fans think."
Sutton himself has been the subject of enough rumors about a drinking problem that he thanked a caller to his Big Blue Line phone-in show for pointedly bringing up the issue. "I'm glad you asked," he said, "because I too have heard that rumor, and it's a very false rumor and a very vicious rumor."
Where Kentucky has been unfathomably uneven, 16-12, Louisville has been in a season-long funk. From their hat trick at the Great Alaska Shutout through their 99-72 St. Valentine's Day massacre at Syracuse, the Cards have clearly suffered a lack of direction from the backcourt. "No matter who we've put in there, they haven't done any better, either," blurted Kevin Walls, the 44.8-points-per-game high school flash from Camden, N.J., after the Memphis State debacle on Jan. 28. "I'm shooting the ball from now on. Put that in [the paper]." Local scribes did, and coach Denny Crum didn't play Walls in the Cards' next outing, against Kansas. In fact. Walls wasn't called upon again—except for a 45-second first-half stint—until late in a blowout against South Carolina, and refused to budge. He quit on Feb. 3, to no one's great regret. The 'Ville's collective backcourt, Keith Williams, Craig Hawley, Mike Abram, Chris West and Walls, had produced 15 points per game on 40.1% shooting through last week. "They write in the paper, 'Denny Crum's teams start slow,' " muses assistant Jerry Jones. "This team reads it in the paper and tries to prove it."
Even Pervis (Ralph) Ellison, who last season went from freshman obscurity to being a Soul Train word scramble, not to mention the Final Four MVP, has at times been an Invisible Man—though, to be fair, he has had chronic ankle problems. And Herb Crook, theretofore the steadiest Card, dribbled out the last seconds of regulation during the 'Ville's 85-84 overtime defeat of Southern Mississippi in Freedom Hall last week. Seems Superb Herb was unaware that the previous Golden Eagles basket had counted for three, and that matters were now tied. "I don't know what will come first," sighed Crum, "ulcers or gray hair."
Louisville's slow start, glacial even by its normal let's-come-out-around-Groundhog Day standards, has borne out Crum's early skepticism about his team's high preseason ranking. "At the time, I wished they were right and I was wrong," he says. "But I'd rather have a bad year this season and lay the groundwork for something to come than play a bunch of patsies just to have a good won-lost record."
After the Cards' loss to Memphis State, they were immediately trundled off to take drug tests. Had they played that poorly? Trainer Jerry May explained, "We want to get them used to having tests done when they come off the court. That's the way the NCAA will do it during the tournament." Unless the 'Ville wins the Metro Conference tourney, it was a wasted exercise.
Misery loves company, but the Cats and Cards can't even count on the consolation of beating up on each other next season. Their four-year home-and-home agreement has expired, and plans to renew it are stalled. "We're the big brother, they're the little brother," said Sutton in December. "We don't need Louisville. We could play the Sisters of the Poor and fill Rupp Arena." To which Crum, speaking to Don Marcus of the Baltimore Sun, replied, "Anybody who is rational would not see [our] program in that light. He must have been drunk when he made that comment."
So they may not play against each other. But what if they played with each other, right now? There would be Ellison and Crook from Louisville inside. Davender and Chapman outside. And, as the fifth starter, either Card Tony Kimbro or Cat Madison. Build Frupp Harena midway down Interstate 64 in, say, Shelbyville, and take on the world as the Wildcards. "It'd be awesome," says Chapman. "There might not be enough balls to go around, but the coaches would solve that problem."
That certainly would be a more pleasant problem than the ones Crum and Sutton are dealing with now.