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Mark Coomes: Friday night, UK basked in the spotlight while the Cards withered

by Mark Coomes

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(Editor’s note: Meet IL’s Mark Coomes tonight at our Insiders Meetup starting at 4:30 p.m. at Vincenzo’s.)

At the risk of being flagged for quotational laziness, I turn again to the sage words of The Eagles.

Five little words from “New Kid in Town” connect Louisville to Lexington and perfectly describe the underlying theme of a fairly momentous Friday night in Kentucky sports.

Great expectations, everybody’s watching you.

They were watching when the University of Louisville football team failed to corroborate its national ranking against Central Florida.

They were watching when the University of Kentucky basketball team unveiled its latest litter of precocious kittens at Big Blue Madness.

The spotlight warms and the spotlight burns. The Wildcats basked; the Cardinals withered.

Those roles might reverse in the months to come, but at the end of Friday night, Team Red felt awfully blue – and Big Blue was tickled pink.

So goes the see-saw of schadenfreude around here.

Last spring the Cardinals were riding high, championship nets in one hand and the Cats’ wounded pride in the other. Never has high holy basketball season produced such a bipolar ending. U of L conquered the NCAAs; UK couldn’t even win a game in the NIT.

One side lived its fondest dream, the other its worst nightmare.

You knew it wouldn’t last. It never does.

“Auld Lang Syne” sounded for the Year of Cardinal last week. On Thursday, junior forward Chane Behanan, who muscled his way onto the All-Final Four team last spring, was indefinitely suspended. The Cards are still major title contenders, but make no mistake: Despite Behanan’s inconsistent and improvident ways, they are better with him than without him.

The next night, U of L’s football team squandered a three-touchdown lead and lost to Central Florida 38-35. The Knights roundly tabled Louisville’s feeble hopes for a shot at the national championship and delivered the coup de grace to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s Heisman Trophy bid.

Bridgewater played splendidly but couldn’t produce the Flutiesque miracle his team required. Like every other Cardinal fan, he watched in helpless horror as the Cards’ formerly airtight defense was popped like a child’s balloon.

Central Florida’s suddenly unstoppable offense sucked the oxygen out of Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium and probably extinguished U of L’s plans to play in a second straight BCS bowl game.

Remember the sales contest scene in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” where first prize is a Cadillac and second prize is a set of steak knives? Unless UCF stumbles in the next six weeks, that’s what U of L is looking at now.

Because BCS bowls are for closers.

Formerly projected to play in the Orange or Fiesta, U of L now is penciled in for the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando. Another loss could drop them an extra rung to the Belk Bowl in Charlotte or the Pinstripe Bowl in New York City.

It hardly matters. All three bowls are booby prizes for a team that spent half the season ranked in the top 10.

And guess what? All three bowls are on Dec. 28, the date of the UK-U of L basketball game, which looms as a genuine hoopspocalypse this year.

So the squad once billed as the best football team in U of L history seems likely to wind up in an off-brand bowl that few fans will attend and, depending on the kickoff time, might not even watch.

In related news, the Cards dropped yesterday from sixth to 16th in the USA Today coaches poll. Oh, how the presumably mighty have fallen.

Until November, college football rankings are about as accurate as a weather forecast from the Farmer’s Almanac. Until good teams repeatedly play other good teams, the polls reflect nothing but presumption.

Because U of L returned 19 starters from the team that shocked Florida in the Sugar Bowl, most pollsters presumed it was a Top 10 team. Fair enough. But they clung to that presumption even as the Cards logged unemphatic wins over unimposing teams like Kentucky, Temple and Rutgers.

Among non-voters, skeptics abounded. Some Cardinal fans didn’t like that and vented their slighted spleens on Twitter and talk radio. When Bridgewater’s Hail Mary went unanswered Friday night, the told-ya-so crowd formed a conga line on the Cardinals’ grave.

It was a predictably unpleasant end to an entirely new experience for U of L football fans.

Welcome to life with a bull’s eye on your back. When you’re ranked sixth nationally and ESPN’s cameras have come to town, everybody’s watching you.

For better or worse.

Limping powerhouses like Notre Dame and USC know what it’s like ride high and fall far. Boise State and TCU have had a taste too. Those programs learned a while back what U of L just discovered – that the penthouse offers a better view than the basement, but the fall to earth sure hurts a lot more.

“A life that is burdened with expectations is a heavy life,” novelist Douglas Adams wrote. “Its fruit is sorrow and disappointment.”

Few fan bases know that better than the one that roots for Kentucky basketball – unless it’s the one that roots for Alabama football. Both groups are steeped in the Southern-fried ethos of Reese and Ricky Bobby:

If you ain’t first, you’re last.

Big Blue Nation might be America’s leading producer of sour grapes. But success spoils everyone, so don’t be hatin’. It’s almost a virtue, this bone-deep disdain for Adams’ bitter fruits. UK fans can’t stand to play second banana.

Ask Joe B. Hall and Tubby Smith. Each won a national championship but when they failed to win another, their throne turned into a hot seat. Hall retired; Smith fled. The burden of expectations was too heavy.

High hopes and high rankings have accompanied the start of most every UK basketball season since 1945. Eight of those seasons ended with an NCAA title. The faithful believe that this one will too.

They are not alone.

College coaches voted UK No. 1 in the USA Today poll released last week. Pro scouts apparently think the Cats are ranked too low.

Check out this tweet from Yahoo! Sports NBA reporter Marc J. Spears, a Courier-Journal alum:

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Then there’s this from CBS Sports Internet scribe Gary Parrish, the guy who left U of L star Luke Hancock off his list of the top 100 college basketball players:

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Young is one of the least-hyped members of UK’s exalted freshman class. He ranked 73rd on Parrish’s list, behind Julius Randle (No. 5), Andrew Harrison (12) and Aaron Harrison (36). If those three rookies are as good as everyone says and Young is even better than they are, Katy bar the door. Only a stitch in time might separate UK from sewing up a ninth national championship.

Then again, preseason rankings of teams and recruits are reliably demonstrable poppycock.

WHAS radio producer Bryan Hash – better known to local listeners as BTI – points out that since 1990, only six preseason No. 1’s managed to win the NCAA championship: Duke (1992, 2001), Kentucky (1996), Connecticut (2004), Florida (2007) and North Carolina (2009).

UK’s previous litter of superkittens – Alex Poythress, Nerlens Noel, Archie Goodwin and Willie Cauley-Stein — were ranked, per usual, as the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class. The Wildcats devolved from champs to chumps nonetheless.

“Wait till next year!” Kentucky fans cried as Robert Morris students stormed the floor.

Next year finally arrived Friday night. More than 23,000 fans packed Rupp Arena for Big Blue Madness, an orgiastic carnival of flashing laser lights, acrobatic slam dunks and outrageously immodest pronouncements.

“We don’t play college basketball,” coach John Calipari declared. “We are college basketball.”

And the crowd goes wild.

Of course it did. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, Kentucky fans don’t shy from great expectations – or the vituperative backlash that comes with them. Their program has worn a bull’s eye for so long that it’s practically a corporate logo.

Speaking of the Swoosh and freshmen and hype ….

Twenty-two years ago, Michigan’s Fab Five, in their fifth game as collegians, pushed Duke’s defending national champions into overtime before succumbing 88-85.

Four weeks from tomorrow, in their fifth game as collegians, the best recruiting class since the Fab Five will lead No. 1 UK against No. 2 Michigan State.

The teen Wolverines exceeded expectations in their big-game debut. UK’s rookies might do the same.

Everybody will be watching, that’s for sure.

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  • Will

    Mark – what’s the scoop on the story about Behanan/Ware from the summer?

  • Mark Coomes

    Will — Outside of the Cards’ inner circle, I don’t think anyone knows for sure. I suspect the pair fractured a few rules and got themselves crossways with Pitino, but it wasn’t anything super-serious. Seems Behanan continued to transgress and now it is serious.

    Let’s say Behanan comes back for the Kentucky game. Cynics will howl that Pitino’s indefinite suspension was empty bluster. Please. When’s the last time you heard of a college basketball star serving a 10- or 12-game suspension? That’s a pretty harsh punishment … if that is indeed what happens.