Everything You Need to Know About the Louisville-Kentucky Basketball Rivalry
The spotlight has never shone brighter on the rivalry between Kentucky and Louisville, winners of the last two national titles between them and set to face off in Sweet 16 action this week. The Battle for the Bluegrass is a college sports rarity, a nonconference showdown with every bit of the intensity (and quality of play) of the best intraleague contests.
Thanks to backcourt stars ranging from Rex Chapman to Russ Smith, it’s also a matchup that plays almost as fast as that other sport the state of Kentucky is famous for. In recent years, that’s had a lot to do with the uptempo philosophy of newly minted Hall of Famer Rick Pitino, the coach who’s spent the better part of the last 25 years piling up more than 500 wins between these two programs.
Herein, a look back at the games, plays and stars who have made the Cardinals-Wildcats series too good to be contained in the regular season alone.
Wins: Louisville 15, Kentucky 31
Conference championships (regular season only): Louisville 22, Kentucky 47*
National titles: Louisville 3, Kentucky 8
Consensus All-Americans: Louisville 6, Kentucky 16
NBA players produced: Louisville 49, Kentucky 82
*Until 1964-65, Louisville was an independent. Kentucky has 23 conference titles since 1964-65.
Louisville’s All-Time Starting 5
C Wes Unseld
PF Charlie Tyra
SF Rodney McCray
SG Darrell Griffith
PG Peyton Siva
Leaving the great Pervis Ellison out of this lineup hurts, but wrecking ball Unseld was the most dominant defender this side of Bill Russell. Tyra, a huge power forward for the 1950s at 6’8” and 230 pounds, still ranks 11th on the Division I charts with 1,617 career rebounds.
Griffith, known as Dr. Dunkenstein, led one Final Four squad and lent his nickname to another: McCray’s 1980 national champs, the Doctors of Dunk. Siva narrowly missed setting the school assist record while leading another title run last year.
Kentucky’s All-Time Starting 5
C Dan Issel
PF Cliff Hagan
SF Jamal Mashburn
SG Tony Delk
PG John Wall
Issel didn’t win a national title as Anthony Davis did, but he was the best scorer and rebounder in school history. Rebounding ace Hagan was a Hall of Famer who did win a title in 1951, while Mashburn climbed to sixth on the school’s scoring charts in just three seasons.
Delk, right above him at No. 5, was also an elite defender for the 1996 champs. One-and-done Wall won national Freshman of the Year honors while setting a new school record for assists in a season.
Most Iconic Coaches
Denny Crum’s red blazer is one of the defining images of college hoops in the 1980s, the decade in which he won both of his national championships. The former John Wooden assistant won 675 games in his three decades at Louisville.
Forty years after his retirement, Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp is still tied for second all time with four national championships. His 876 victories stood as the all-time record for 25 years before Dean Smith broke it (and are still enough for fifth place).
Most Memorable Games
5. 2009: Louisville 74, Kentucky 71
Billy Gillispie’s ill-fated stay at Kentucky almost featured a historic comeback win, as Jodie Meeks scored seven points in 17.1 seconds to tie the game at 71. No. 18 Louisville, though, got the clutch play that mattered—the last one—on an Edgar Sosa three-pointer.
4. 2012 Final Four: Kentucky 69, Louisville 61
Fittingly, no team gave Kentucky’s top-ranked Undeniables a tougher fight in the NCAA tournament than their archrivals. Peyton Siva led the fourth-seeded Cards back from a 13-point second-half deficit before Anthony Davis (18 points, 14 boards, five blocks) and the Wildcats recaptured the lead for good.
3. 2004: Kentucky 60, Louisville 58
Down 16 points with just more than 11 minutes remaining, No. 9 Kentucky followed sharpshooting Patrick Sparks to an improbable comeback. The 6’0” Western Kentucky transfer (playing in his eighth game as a Wildcat) nailed three free throws with less than a second to play, stealing a road win over the No. 13 Cards.
2. 1987: Kentucky 76, Louisville 75
Despite entering the game as the top-ranked team in the nation, the Wildcats needed a miracle to survive the unranked Cards at Rupp Arena. Cedric Jenkins scored only two points on the day, but they came on a third-chance tip-in at the buzzer after Ed Davender’s jumper rattled out.
1. 1983 Elite Eight: Louisville 80, Kentucky 68
Louisville was ranked No. 2 and seeded No. 1 entering the so-called Dream Game—the first meeting of the two teams since 1959—while the ‘Cats were No. 12 and a third seed. The Cardinals started off 4-of-20 from the field, but rallied in the second half. Lancaster Gordon’s jumper put Louisville up by two with eight seconds to go, only to have Jim Master nail a buzzer-beater to send it to OT.
In the extra period, the Cardinals’ speed took over, as they piled up five steals in seven possessions to launch a 14-0 run that put the game away. Louisville would go on to lose an equally epic showdown with Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma team in the Final Four.
Moment You Shouldn’t Mention to a Louisville Fan
In 1986-87, Louisville was defending its second-ever national championship behind star center Pervis Ellison. By late December, it was clearly not going to be a fun season.
The Cardinals entered their showdown with 18th-ranked Kentucky at an ugly 3-5, and it only got uglier from there at Freedom Hall.
Wildcats freshman Rex Chapman, an expert at the then-novel three-point shot, torched Louisville’s zone for 26 points in a game that was all but over by halftime. The final score: 85-51, the worst loss of Denny Crum’s Hall of Fame career.
Moment You Shouldn’t Mention to a Kentucky Fan
Kentucky lost just four games en route to the 1998 national championship, but one of them came on the then-No. 4 Wildcats’ home floor to an unranked Cardinals squad. Louisville, which would finish the year 12-20, trailed by only four at the half and kept on scrapping.
Unheralded junior Eric Johnson, who averaged just 7.9 points per game, poured in a game-high 20 while Cameron Murray added 15 for the Cardinals.
Although Kentucky managed to shrink a nine-point lead in the closing minutes, Scott Padgett missed his fifth consecutive long-range attempt at the buzzer and Louisville escaped with a 79-76 win.
Public Enemy No. 1 for Louisville
Jamal Mashburn faced Louisville three times in his college career, and the Cardinals never came closer than eight points to one of his Wildcats teams.
Mashburn’s worst performance of the three came in his freshman year, when he beat up the Louisville frontcourt for “only” a team-high 10 rebounds (while adding six points and an assist).
Once Monster Mash took over as Kentucky’s star, things only got worse for the Cards, who gave up 103 points (25 from Mashburn) in a 1991 loss.
The forward capped his career performance against Denny Crum’s boys by piling up another 27 points and seven rebounds in a 20-point rout at Freedom Hall.
Public Enemy No. 1 for Kentucky
Ex-Kentucky coach Rick Pitino went from hero to villain faster than almost any coach in history when he signed on to his old team’s archrival.
Even the national title he won in Lexington can’t immunize him against the bitterness of a spurned fanbase now that he's running the show for the Cardinals.
It doesn’t help that he’s beaten his old team five times in a dozen seasons with Louisville, including two in front of the Rupp Arena crowd. The national title he brought to the Cards last April added another pinch of salt to an already substantial wound.
Louisville's Biggest Claim to Bragging Rights
Nobody knows how to pull an upset against the Wildcats like Louisville does. Unranked Cardinals teams hold an amazing 5-7 record against AP Top 25 Kentucky squads, with Reece Gaines leading the most recent win in 2002.
While that kind of performance might be expected from a great rivalry, it doesn’t work the other way around. When Louisville’s ranked and Kentucky isn’t, the Cards are 5-0.
Kentucky’s Biggest Claim to Bragging Rights
For fans of team basketball, Kentucky’s eight national titles (second only to UCLA) tend to be the decisive factor in any argument. Only four other teams have even half that many, and Louisville isn’t one of them.
If you prefer star power, the ‘Cats have a similarly overwhelming edge there, more than doubling Louisville’s number of All-Americans and turning out close to twice as many future pros.
Kentucky also has three Hall of Fame players (Dan Issel, Cliff Hagan and Frank Ramsey) to Louisville’s one (Wes Unseld).
The Final Word
Since John Calipari’s 2009 arrival in Lexington, both teams have won national titles, but Big Blue is 5-1 against Louisville.
That’s a pretty good microcosm of the whole rivalry: Louisville’s had some impressive moments, but the raw numbers skew heavily on Kentucky’s side.
Whether it’s wins and losses in the series or championship banners in the rafters, the ‘Cats come out ahead, though Louisville will get a great chance to cut into that lead with a Sweet 16 win on Friday.