The Bluegrass State’s two premier college basketball programs have taken wildly different paths recently. As Kentucky has rolled into a second decade under John Calipari, Louisville will start this season with its fifth head coach in seven years.
Both the Wildcats and Cardinals are steeped in tradition, but can they each claim status as a modern blue blood?
BetKentucky.com attempted to determine this using a points system we created.
Starting with the 2011-12 season, when the NCAA Tournament expanded to 68 teams, points were awarded to each program in the following areas: National championship wins (10 points per title), national championship appearances (5 points per appearance), Final Four appearances (4 points), NCAA Tournament appearances (1 point) and top 25 recruiting finishes (1 point for each year with a recruiting class ranked in the top 25 by the 247Sports Composite), with 35 points considered the baseline for blue-blood status.
It was close, but both of Kentucky's top teams made the cut.
Kentucky sports betting is not legal, but at least the Wildcats garner favor with the minds of national sportsbooks crafting NCAA odds.
College Basketball’s Current Breed of Elite
Kentucky (51 points)
The Wildcat faithful might be starting to grow restless after seven years without a Final Four appearance, but Kentucky still has made three trips to the last weekend of the tournament since 2012, tied with Kansas, UNC and Villanova for the most over that span.
The 2011-12 squad captured the Wildcats’ eighth national championship after one of the most dominant seasons of the modern era.
Led by National Player of the Year Anthony Davis, they went 38-2, with their only losses coming by one in December at Indiana on Christian Watford’s famed buzzer-beater and by seven to a Vanderbilt team with three future NBA players on it in the SEC Tournament Championship Game.
Featuring a balanced offense and stifling defense, that edition of the Wildcats outscored their opponents by an average of 16.8 points per game as their top six players all averaged between 9.9 and 14.2 points per game.
Two years later, Kentucky made a run to the title game as a No. 8 seed before finally falling to No. 7 seed Connecticut in the highest seeded championship game of all time. During the tournament, the Wildcats toppled undefeated Wichita State by two in a classic Round of 32 matchup and advanced to both the Final Four and National Championship Game on Aaron Harrison game winners.
Harrison and several other key members of that team chose to return to Lexington for the 2014-15 season, where they combined with top recruits like Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker to go 38-1. Although Kentucky failed to reach its ultimate goal of a championship as they lost 71-64 to Wisconsin in the National Semifinals, the '14-15 Wildcats adjusted efficiency margin of 36.91 remains the highest on record in the 22-year history of the KenPom database.
Since then, Kentucky has won 25 or more games every season except 2020-21, despite typically featuring one of the youngest rosters in college basketball as a result of their team building model and recruiting prowess.
They are the only program besides Kansas to sign a top 25 recruiting class every year since 2011 and the Wildcats have yet to sign a class ranked outside the top 5 during that stretch.
Last month, we looked at the Wildcats' preseason ranking and how they might fare this season.
Louisville (36 points)
The Cardinals have made just one NCAA Tournament since firing Rick Pitino five years ago, but the work he did the last third of his tenure was enough to keep Louisville’s status as a modern blue blood in these rankings.
Though they were later vacated, the Cardinals made back-to-back Final Four appearances in 2012 and 2013, losing to Kentucky in the National Semifinals the first year while defeating Michigan for the title the following year.
Three players, Peyton Siva, Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan, started for both teams. Russ Smith largely came off the bench in 2012 but finished finishing second on the team in scoring. He then blossomed into a First Team All-Big East selection and Louisville’s heart and soul in 2013.
These Louisville squads were defined by their excellence on defense. Per KenPom, the Cardinals finished first nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency in both 2012 and 2013, with the 2013 team recording one of only four sub 85.0 seasons since 2002.
Though they never reached the top spot again, thanks to Pitino’s patented pressure scheme Louisville maintained a top 10 defense every year from then until his dismissal.
The Cardinals went on to make three more tournaments (it would have been four except for a self-imposed postseason ban in 2015-16) before Pitino was forced out during the Brian Bowen scandal, but it has been a rollercoaster for the program ever since.
David Padgett led the 2017-18 team as an interim head coach, but Louisville failed to make the tournament for the first non-postseason ban time since 2006 under his watch. Chris Mack was then hired from Xavier after a highly successful nine-year stint with the Musketeers, but he could never establish himself in red and black.
Mack took the Cardinals back to the tournament in his first year at the helm and got them to No. 1 in the Associated Press poll for two weeks in December of his second year, a hint of what is still possible at Louisville. But the Cardinals finished the season ranked 14th and never got to experience postseason play thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fan frustration began to mount as the Cardinals were the first team left out of the 2021 tournament and Mack was eventually sacked midway through last season after going 6-8 following his return from a six-game suspension to start the year.
Former Louisville star Kenny Payne is now tasked with revitalizing his alma mater.
Kentucky sports betting apps are not in the state's near future, but stay close to this site for news pertaining to both the Wildcats and Cardinals this season.