Thursday, December 14, 2006

Dream Game Nightmare

As veteran readers of this blog know, I am a Kentucky boy through and through. Born and raised in the rural, rolling land of central Kentucky, I grew up driving tractors, working on farms, and enjoying the beautiful woods and rivers (Rough River was my local body of water) of our great state.

Growing up in Breckinridge County also meant that your college basketball team was the Kentucky Wildcats. That, in turn, meant that it was your duty to hate Louisville. And, every year, these two clubs hook up for the "Dream Game" in December. The two did not play in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. Louisville accused Kentucky of dodging them for most of those years. But, when UK and UL met in the 1983 Mideast Region Final of the NCAA Tournament, their relationship changed. The two clubs played to a draw in regulation, but Louisville ran away in overtime for an 80-68 victory. The two clubs have played every year since the original "Dream Game."

I have never failed to watch a "Dream Game." Although my heart lies with Western Kentucky, this is still one of the most important non-conference games in the country. But, I cannot a remember a game with less national impact than this year's edition which will take place on Saturday. Kentucky is 6-3 with losses to UCLA, Memphis, and North Carolina. Their best win is over 5-3 Indiana. Coach Tubby Smith is, rightly or wrongly, under intense pressure from fans due to his lack of deep tournament runs and multiple double-digit loss seasons. Many fans feel that his style simply turns off top recruits and that UK lacks elite talent. The situation is becoming more tumultuous at Louisville as well. The Cards are 4-3 with losses to Arizona, Dayton, and a home loss to UMass last night. All of their wins have occurred in Freedom Hall and only Ohio has a winning record to date. For most of the college basketball world, it was unthinkable that Rick Pitino's sixth Cardinal team would be unranked at any point during a season.

Neither team is ranked. Neither will be ranked regardless of the outcome on Saturday. Neither figures to challenge for their conference title. Louisville is coming off of an NIT and fears are growing that they will return there. UK was an 8-seed last season and fans fear a similar fate or worse this season.

But, in a strange, bizarro-world way, this "Dream Game" has MORE meaning than many past meetings. Most years, both teams are ranked and will clearly dance in March. Alas, the loser of this game will be in full panic mode. UL could conceivably drop to 4-4 with two straight home losses. UK could drop to 6-4 with a loss to a struggling rival.

One team will put out the fire at least for the short term. One team will have kerosene poured on its already spreading blaze.

The game is on CBS at 12.30 CST on Saturday.

Last Night's GOI

--at Cincinnati 67, Xavier 57. The Bearcats sprung an upset in Mick Cronin's first big win. Great timing for the Bearcats.
--UMass 72, at Louisville 68. This looks like a huge road win for UMass, but something is up at Louisville. A loss to Arizona is one thing. A neutral court loss to Dayton is not disastrous. A loss at home to UMass alone might not break their backs, but the three combined are puzzling. And the three combined say that UL is not an NCAA team right now.
--at Florida Atlantic 91, Troy 87. FAU wins their Belt opener at home.
--at New Orleans 80, UL-Lafayette 76. Bo McCalebb went for a career high 36 in this one. He fires the salvo in Courtney Lee's direction for Sun Belt POY honors.

Tonight's GOI
Sun Belt Slate
--Denver at Arkansas State. The Pioneers (1-9) have been playing some of the worst basketball in the country. ASU's (3-7) preseason buzz has been silenced.