To this point in the college basketball season, the past two national champions have combined to prove one thing: They can beat mediocre competition.
Louisville, the 2013 champion, is 11-0 against teams ranked outside the top 50 in Ken Pomeroy's rankings. The Cardinals are 0-1 against teams in the top 50, having lost handily to North Carolina on a neutral floor in November.
Kentucky, the 2012 champ, is 9-0 against teams outside the Pomeroy top 50. The Wildcats are 0-3 against teams in the top 50 with neutral-court losses to Michigan State and Baylor, and a road loss to North Carolina.
Thus, when the Cardinals and Wildcats meet Saturday in Rupp Arena to renew the nation's most intense rivalry, it will be a major Prove-It Game for both teams. One team will finally put a big-time victory on its rèsumè. The other will still be without a signature win and face a new year of dwindling opportunities to do so.
In years past, Louisville could count on 10 high-level games against Big East opponents before even getting to the conference tournament. But in their first and only season in the American Athletic Conference, the opportunities are limited to about six right now: home-and-home games against Connecticut, Memphis and Cincinnati. SMU, in its second year under the ancient-but-brilliant Larry Brown, looks sneaky good, but we'll see whether that holds up in conference play.
Kentucky is, once again, saddled with a soft Southeastern Conference. The league is better than last year – it had nowhere to go but up – yet still remains far behind the nation's best. The Wildcats have two games against Florida (No. 10 Pomeroy and No. 17 Sagarin), four against pretty good teams (LSU twice, Missouri and Tennessee) and two against a 9-2 Arkansas team that has to prove it can do anything away from home to be taken seriously (3-24 in road/neutral games under Mike Anderson).
In other words, expect some urgency in Rupp on Saturday. This is always a five-alarm urgency game for the fans, not to mention bitter coaching rivals Rick Pitino and John Calipari. But sometimes rosters loaded with out-of-state players don't appreciate the depth of feeling (also known as outright hatred) that accompanies the game.
This year, even if the players don't burn with desire to beat the other team, they should at least recognize the impact the game will have on the body of work presented to the NCAA tournament selection committee come March.
Despite concerns about the center spot, Louisville fans can at least harbor confidence that their team will be in the national mix when it matters. Pitino-coached Louisville teams almost always hit their stride in February, despite inevitably spawning concern at some point along the way. This team, which is ranked No. 1 by Pomeroy and leads the nation in margin of victory, showed what it is capable of in obliterating decent Southern Miss and Missouri State teams by 31 and 30, respectively.
"That was by far the best game we've played so far," Pitino said after the Missouri State blowout on Dec. 17.
For Kentucky fans, the doubts are deeper and fears greater. After winning it all in April 2012, they were absolutely certain Calipari had gotten over on the rest of college basketball, reinventing the game. His recruiting powers, combined with his expertise at team-building, would lead to an era of dominance via overwhelming talent.
But now there are nagging questions about the viability of perennial freshman-based teams competing for national titles. The humility lessons that should have been learned after last year's NIT fiasco were short-lived.
Fans wrote last season off as an anomaly, brandishing recruiting rankings as proof that this team may be Calipari's best yet. There was some 40-0 chatter from a few delusional souls, but plenty of overconfidence from the majority of the fan base as well. CBS' Doug Gottlieb was trashed for ranking the Cats all the way down at seventh coming into the season (so far, that's way too high). Calipari himself added to the arrogance at Big Blue Madness, stating, "We don't just play college basketball, we are college basketball."
If Kentucky is college basketball in 2013-14, then college basketball is underachieving.
This group may eventually come together as a championship-caliber team – perhaps even as soon as Saturday. But at present, Kentucky's most notable attribute is being extremely tall – which is a state of being, not a talent. UK is playing more like a continuation of the 2012-13 Cats than a reincarnation of the 2011-12 Cats.
The underwhelming performances away from Rupp Arena continue: Kentucky has won just one of its last 10 road/neutral games and has just one significant road victory since the national title (at Mississippi last January). And the inconsistency of effort and lapses in cohesion are glaring with the current team. High-school All-Americans half-stepping it and sulking have not made for a good look.
"They [the Cardinals] play extremely hard, way harder than we've played," Calipari said last Saturday after Kentucky beat Belmont in unconvincing fashion. "Like, way harder."
Expect the Wildcats to play the hardest they have all season Saturday. And expect the same from the Cardinals. They have much to prove, and only one team will emerge from Rupp with a victory both need.