Since the early part of the offseason, I'd planned to spend a chunk of this week writing about how the game that always means everything in the Commonwealth was going to mean less than ever before.
The basic premise was this: For the first time in a long time (maybe ever) both fan bases were going to be - at the time of the annual rivalry game at least - expecting their teams to make it to the Final Four, not just hoping. The past two national champions were going to begin the season ranked in the top three, roll through their early non-conference slate, and then square off in a game that meant everything when it came to bragging rights, but little in the grand scheme of things. This was the year that "see you in March" was going to be more than just the sore loser's battle cry.
The narrative has changed.
Louisville and Kentucky will enter Saturday's showdown at Rupp Arena with a grand total of zero quality wins between them. A week ago the Wildcats became the first team in the history of the coaches' poll to fall from preseason No. 1 to out of the top 20 before the end of December. The Cardinals have slipped just one spot from their opening position in that same poll, but they surrendered 93 points and lost by nine to the only opponent of consequence that they've faced thus far.
U of L stumbling in November is a tradition as strictly-enforced as the postgame playing of "My Old Kentucky Home." The result has been a number of years where Kentucky has been expected to defeat its in-state rival, and the Cards - in the years in which they were defeated - have been able to fall back on a loaded conference schedule in order to rack up quality wins and improve their tournament resume.
Again, the narrative has changed.
Louisville's non-conference schedule was pieced together with the belief that they would be spending one more season in the Big East. The early split by the league's so-called "Catholic 7" has left the Cardinals navigating through a weak early season slate without the benefit of a life jacket. Once conference play rolls around, U of L will play four total games against the formidable duo of Connecticut and Memphis, a couple of games against what appears to be a good Cincinnati team...and that's pretty much going to be it in terms of NCAA Tournament competition.
As for Kentucky, the risk/reward disparity heading into Saturday is just as extreme. The Wildcats have played three top 25 teams so far, and come away with zero victories. The SEC has once again done Big Blue Nation no favors, leaving them with a league slate that includes two games against what will eventually be a very good Florida team, one game against a Missouri team that was unbeaten before last weekend...and that's pretty much it. UK fans can mock Louisville's schedule all they want, but if they win on Saturday, they'll happily claim a win over a (at the time) top 5 team once seeding discussions heat up in early March.
The long and short of it is this: There is a very real chance that Saturday's game could wind up making a 1-3 line difference when the time comes to seed both Louisville and Kentucky for the NCAA Tournament.
This year's rivalry game was always going to be different. The fact that the Cats and Cards have won the past two national championships and began this season ranked No. 1 and No. 3, respectively, guaranteed it. What no one could have predicted (or at least, what no one did predict) was why the game was going to be different. The expected pomp and pageantry (and hatred) are all going to be present throughout this week, but on Saturday, there's going to be more legitimate substance at play than anyone forecasted during the preseason.
Every year around this time, we hear the coaches and the players on both sides talk about how this game is "for the fans." Well, this year it's for them too.