There was a time when the University of Kentucky could boast of having, year in and year out, the best college basketball team in the land. Now it can't even claim the best team in Kentucky. The latest blow to the Wildcats' pretense to preeminence in Bluegrass country came last week in Nashville, where everybody expected Kentucky and Louisville to meet in a "dream game" in the second round of the NCAA Mideast Regional. The dream turned into a nightmare when the Wildcats were upset 50-44 in the first round by Middle Tennessee State. It's bad enough that Kentucky got bounced from the tournament and that Louisville subsequently whipped Middle Tennessee 81-56. But what really stamps the Wildcats as No. 2 on their own turf is their continuing and increasingly shameful reluctance to play despised Louisville in the regular season.
That failure of the competitive spirit on Kentucky's part plays very much into the hands of Denny Crum, who became the Louisville coach in 1971. Crum has turned out a succession of talented and freewheeling teams, and when the Cardinals won the NCAA championship two years ago, he got in a dig at the Wildcats by crowing, "Now we're the university of Kentucky." Under Crum, Louisville has thumbed its nose at entrenched Kentucky in other ways; this season a Louisville radio station, WHAS, which for many years has broadcast Kentucky games, also started carrying Cardinal games.
Kentucky could have responded to Louisville's challenge with considerably more grace than it has. Outside of the greater Louisville area, the Wildcats continue to own the hearts and minds of most of the state's rabid basketball fans, and probably always will. Under Joe B. Hall, who had the thankless task of succeeding Adolph Rupp as coach in 1972, they won an NCAA tournament of their own in 1978. But Hall's somewhat regimented team isn't as much fun to watch as Louisville's, and to judge by the great number of stars who have transferred to other schools, it's also considerably less fun to play for. And the Wildcats have tended to fold at inopportune moments, last week's stunning upset in Nashville being only the latest example.
In losing to Middle Tennessee, Kentucky may have been guilty of looking ahead to the anticipated showdown with Louisville. And in view of the Cardinal phobia that has been bred into Wildcat players, how could it have been otherwise? The two schools haven't scheduled each other in basketball since 1922, and they last met in the NCAA tournament in 1959, when Louisville upset one of Rupp's best teams 76-61. Crum has repeatedly called for the two schools to start playing each other during the regular season, but Kentucky coaches, officials and boosters, taking a what-have-we-got-to-gain position, have turned a deaf ear.
They have looked silly in the process. When a TV reporter asked Hall in a preseason interview about the prospect for such a game, the Kentucky coach looked into the camera and said, "Cut...dissolve." And when The Sporting News tried to arrange for Louisville and Kentucky players to pose together for the cover of its college basketball issue. Hall balked. A bill has been introduced in the Kentucky legislature that would require the two schools to meet each year in both basketball and football (the Wildcats have lately been avoiding Louisville in that sport, too), but University of Kentucky supporters opposed the measure, which is currently bottled up in committee. Under the circumstances, some Louisville partisans could scarcely be blamed for wondering aloud whether Hall's team had intentionally lost to Middle Tennessee in order to avoid playing the Cardinals. There's no reason, thank goodness, to believe such a thing, but Hall and his Wildcats don't have much to be proud of all the same.
Could it have been an omen? In Murfreesboro, Tenn., home of Middle Tennessee State, bumper stickers reading MURFREESBORO NEEDS JOE B were seen long before last week's big win over Kentucky. But the stickers didn't refer to Wildcat Coach Hall. It happens that Joe B. Jackson is the Democratic candidate for mayor in Murfreesboro's April 20 general election.
A BIG GUY SPEAKS OUT
Bob Hill, a columnist for The Louisville Times, has a pet peeve. Hill is vexed that basketball coaches, announcers, sports-writers and fans insist on saying of Ralph Sampson, Sam Bowie and other sweet-shooting giants, "He's got a great touch for a big man." Calling that phrase "archaic, offensive and discriminatory," Hill allowed in one of his recent columns that there was a time when the "big lummoxes" who played basketball couldn't shoot, but he pointed out that the "game is now overrun with 6'8" clones who are good outside shots." With unassailable logic, Hill asked, "Has anyone ever said that 6'8" John Kenneth Galbraith is a great economist for a big man?" Warming to his subject, Hill also wrote, "And why shouldn't [today's big men] be good shots?" He answered his own question: "They don't have those dumb, ugly, stubby little fingers that the pint-sized guys do."
Forgive the flash of anger. The 6'5" Hill, who was a swingman on Rice's basketball team in the early '60s, admitted that he was still scarred from having suffered the slings and arrows of classmates because he was "the tallest kid in my class for 12 years in a row."