LEXINGTON (AP) — It’s the worst nightmare for Big Blue Nation. Kentucky isn’t in the NCAA tournament and rival Louisville not only is the favorite to win the whole thing, it gets to start on the Wildcats’ home court.
Rupp Arena has never been so red.
Louisville is the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAAs, while the best Kentucky could do was top seed in the NIT, an award that goes to the team considered the 69th best in the nation.
No one saw this coming before the season began.
The Cardinals and the Wildcats were ranked 2-3 in the preseason poll and fans expected a season-long battle for supremacy. While Louisville (29-5) has held up its end, the Wildcats (21-11) didn’t live up to expectations.
For Kentucky, the tables have completely turned in the last year, and in the cruelest of ways. Coach John Calipari said the Wildcats hit “rock bottom” by not making the NCAA tournament.
Kentucky, the overall No. 1 seed last year, began its run to an eighth national championship on Louisville’s homecourt, the KFC YUM! Center. But, of course, the Cardinals were also in the tournament, heading to a surprising Final Four appearance of their own and a showdown with the Wildcats.
Kentucky fans turned out in force as they normally do for those regional games in Louisville, and, with freshmen All-Americans Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, were on hand for the national semifinal victory in New Orleans over the veteran Cardinals.
“It hurt a little bit,” Louisville graduate and Lexington bank manager Ursula McIntyre said of the Cardinals’ loss to the Wildcats in last year’s Final Four. “But at least it was Kentucky, so after that I just cheered for Kentucky to win it all. I root hard for Louisville and am a die-hard fan, and I root for Kentucky when they’re not playing U of L.”
Kentucky fans aren’t as open-minded when it comes to Louisville, which is why there probably won’t be much — if any — Kentucky blue at Rupp Arena Thursday when Louisville plays the winner of the North Carolina A&T-Liberty game.
“There’s something wrong with seeing all those red shirts in Rupp Arena,” said Wildcats fan Walt Ruggles of Lawrenceburg.
Though there won’t be many Wildcat fans at Kentucky’s NIT game, either.
The Wildcats open the tournament on the road against Robert Morris at the 3,000-seat Charles L. Sewall Center in Moon Township, Pa., Calipari’s hometown near Pittsburgh. For the fans who do make the trip, in the back of their minds they’ll know that the more spacious confines of 22,000-seat Rupp Arena will be getting ready to host second- and third-round NCAA games — with that school about 75 miles down I-64 as the home team.
“It’s disappointing not to be in the NCAA tournament,” said Fan Outfitters President Joe Kawaja, a Kentucky graduate whose company sells Wildcats and Cardinals merchandise in Lexington. “The outcome was expected, so I’m not surprised that the Wildcats didn’t make it and that Louisville is the No. 1 seed.
“As any UK fan would be, there’s disappointment.”
Disappointment is a good way to describe Kentucky’s up-and-down season.
With suspect guard play, injuries and a lack of veteran leadership, a trip to the NIT isn’t a total shocker for the young Cats.
Still, expectations are always high at Kentucky, and it took a while for reality to set in after all the at-large bids were handed out Sunday and the Wildcats didn’t receive one.
“We were just kind of speechless for a while,” junior guard Jon Hood said Monday. “Nobody really knew what to do. We had to wait around until 9 p.m. to see who we would play, and we are just moving on.”
Calipari apologized to fans for his team’s disappointing play. Although the Wildcats would play a second-round game at Rupp, he tweeted Monday that it would be understandable to see what happens Tuesday night before buying tickets for later NIT games.
Like many games during what has been a frustrating stretch for the coach, players and fans, Calipari says the Wildcats have another chance to show what they’re made of.
“We’ve got time to work with our guys,” he said. “Keep coaching them and maybe the light goes on. Maybe reality hits. When you hit rock bottom, you either want to change or you are delusional. We will see if we have delusional guys or they understand.”
The outlook is obviously more upbeat for Louisville fans heading to Lexington.
The Cardinals have been a Top 10 team for all but a few weeks this season, and their 10-game winning streak, including three en route to their second straight Big East tournament championship, earned the top seed and the reward of playing the first two games close to home.
Donal Ryan, 48, considers it karma for Louisville to be playing at Rupp.
“It is interesting,” said Ryan, who owns two Molly Malone’s pubs in Louisville. “It might be kind of an omen, an opportunity for Louisville to go all the way this year.”