Cards vs. Cats: You can smell fear amidst the mistletoe and sugar plums


The Cats and Cards men’s basketball teams face off at Rupp Arena at noon on Saturday. The game will air on CBS. | File Photos

The two great immutable constants of Kentucky college sports are that the University of Kentucky will lose at football, but its fans will forgive and forget.

Native smart alecks know that this phenomenon is routinely and sardonically described by a melancholy platitude: The triumph of hope over experience.

It’s basketball season now, and the corporate-sponsored shoe is on the other tribe’s foot. Despite seven losses in eight tries against John Calipari, dewy leaves of optimism are abloom in the habitually broken hearts of University of Louisville fans.

Big brother? Sole brother is more like it. Since Calipari fled Memphis for Lexington in 2009, UK has planted its Nikes squarely on the Cardinals’ throat. Saturday’s renewal of the bitter blood feud offers U of L rare hope of redemption and revenge.

The old blue mare ain’t what she used to be. UK’s perennial potluck of raw rookies and draft-day leftovers is presently half-baked. The Wildcats have lost two of their last four games – and not to any world-beaters. The Cards outrank the Cats, according to the sport’s favorite quants Ken Pomeroy (who has U of L sixth and UK 12th) and Jeff Sagarin (No. 2 vs. No. 26).

Las Vegas has yet to weigh in, but UK likely will be a slim favorite nonetheless. Louisville’s embarrassingly weak preconference schedule, ranked 305th nationally by Sagarin, makes bettors skeptical, particularly in light of the series’ lopsided nature of late. What’s more, the game is in Rupp Arena, where the Cards are 4-13 against UK.

Calipari is 3-0 against U of L at Rupp, but those three teams were better equipped to defend home base.

Kentucky’s annual transfusion of five-star freshmen is comparatively anemic this year. It’s not that the kids can’t play. It’s that they lack the absurd degree of physical and mental precocity present in past classes. Except for the December 2012 scrum between U of L’s eventual national champs and UK’s prospective NIT chumps, the Cards have flatly lacked the talent to tame the Cats in the Calipari era.

But John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Julius Randle and Karl-Anthony Towns aren’t walking through that door on Saturday.

A sharp win over Duke notwithstanding, the latest litter of Superkittens is more apt to play hard than play well. Their offense is about as organized as a tub of live bait. They got run out of SoCal by a so-so UCLA squad on Dec. 3, and last Saturday, they were thumped by a 5-5 Ohio State team that had lost to Texas-Arlington and Louisiana Tech. at home.

Skal “The Haitian Sensation” Labissiere | Photo by Chet White/UK Athletics

Skal “The Haitian Sensation” Labissiere | Photo by Chet White/UK Athletics

UK’s most prized recruit, forward Skal “The Haitian Sensation” Labissiere, has averaged 4.5 points and 2.5 rebounds this month. He seems physically overmatched and psychologically shaky.

Three young guards – Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe – provide nearly 40 percent of the Wildcats’ scoring. They also take 53 percent of the shots. Only 42 percent of them go in. Unless they are shooting from three-point range, then they make less than 1 in 3.

This is not an efficient team. Or an intimidating team. Or, with only two upperclassmen averaging more than 12 minutes per game, a terribly cohesive team at this point. It is, however, a promising team. These Cats are more Easter Bunny than Santa Claus. U of L is lucky to catch them in the shadow of the winter solstice.

It’s usually the other way around, with the Cards playing catch up to the Cats in December. Not this year, not with two fifth-year seniors calling – and making – the shots for U of L.

The preseason polls ignored U of L and – sorry, conspiracy theorists – the Belknap brothel story had nothing to do with it. Voters simply didn’t believe that a pair of transfers from Drexel and Cleveland State could adequately replace a first-round draft pick (Terry Rozier), a high second-round pick (Montrezl Harrell) and a four-year starter (Wayne Blackshear) – the core of a squad that fell one free throw short of the Final Four last spring.

The voters were wrong. So far anyway.

Trey Lewis | Photo courtesy of U of L Athletics

Trey Lewis | Photo courtesy of U of L Athletics

A colleague tells me that Rick Pitino was sky high on Damion Lee and Trey Lewis all along, but the duo perhaps have exceeded even the coach’s expectations. They play hard; they play smart, and they score with deadly aplomb. The transfers are together averaging 32 points a game.

Lewis and Lee recall the firepower of Russ Smith and Terry Rozier without the attendant flameouts. They shoot nearly 50 percent from the field and better than 40 percent from three-point range – albeit against wretched competition, save for their 44-point tour de force at top-ranked Michigan State.

It is on that game that Louisville fans’ hopes are staked. If the nouveau Cards’ untested blend of transfers, newcomers and second-tier holdovers could take Sparty to the mat in East Lansing, there’s no reason to think they can’t shove Big Brother’s boot off their Adam’s apple on Saturday.

But any confidence is laced with caution, even fear. Calipari, it is said, has Pitino’s number. Truth is, the whole UK program has the former UK coach’s number since he moved west to the state’s true capital. As Mark Story pointed out this week in the Lexington Herald-Leader, Pitino is 3-10 against UK since 2003 – and 1-10 vs. UK coaches not named Billy Gillispie.

Funny how this rebooted rivalry has panned out in the marquee sports. UK can’t beat Bobby Petrino in football, and U of L can’t beat Calipari in hoops. Both sides are terrified of their respective overlords. You could smell fear in the wind at Commonwealth Stadium as the Cards commenced to rally last month. You can smell fear amidst the mistletoe and sugar plums now.

Calipari is the bête bleu of L1C4. Paranoid fans thought they heard Cal cackle when Mangok Mathiang broke his foot last weekend, depriving U of L of precisely the kind of veteran big man needed to capitalize on UK’s newly feeble front line.

There is no hope that the big blue boogeyman can’t dash, no experience he can’t spoil. Louisville fans are slower to forgive and forget. This is basketball, after all.