A Commonwealth of Disappointment

During the 2010s, there weren't many programs in college basketball that were stronger or more reliable than Kentucky and Louisville. Each won a national championship, made multiple Final Fours, and had a rivalry that was arguably on par with Duke and North Carolina for the best in the sport.

In the last few years, though, both massive programs in the Bluegrass State haven't been at the top as regularly, albeit for different reasons.

Louisville's struggles can't be overstated. No team in ACC history had started 0-9 since the inception of the conference in 1953 until the Cardinals did this season. They have massive roster holes and one of the worst offenses in the country.

First-year head coach Kenny Payne was dealt a tough hand after some recruiting losses and the slow decline of the Chris Mack era left the cupboard bare, but a program like Louisville should never be this bad. It's likely that the Cardinals will be underdogs in every game for the rest of the season, and an 0-20 ACC conference record is still in play as of mid-January.

Observers predicted a tough season, ranking Louisville 12th in the preseason media poll but still ahead of three teams, including Pitt, who has a chance for a surprise NCAA tournament bid. If the Cardinals want to even return to the dance, much less put the recent years of NCAA violation side effects behind them, they'll have to get a quick turnaround out of the recruiting trail or the transfer portal.

Expectations for Kentucky coming into the 2022-23 season weren't pessimistic at all. National Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe returned to the Wildcats, the first incumbent player of the year to return to college basketball since 2008 and just the second to come back in the last 40 years.

Other key contributors like Sahvir Wheeler and Jacob Toppin came back to give the roster a level of year-to-year stability that hasn't been a hallmark of the John Calipari era. Blue-chip freshman guard Cason Wallace still gave the Cats a likely one-and-done talent, though, and Antonio Reeves came to Lexington after an all-conference season at Illinois State.

In short, it promised to be a team with experience, talent, and smarts to handle any situation from November to March. That promise of championship contention or even an SEC title hasn't yet been fulfilled, leading to myriad questions about this being the end of the Calipari era.

I don't know exactly what to make of the last 10 days of Kentucky's play. Against Alabama on Jan. 7 and South Carolina on Jan. 10, the Wildcats looked like an NIT team — or worse — that probably wouldn't sniff a .500 conference record in a deep SEC. Against No. 5 Tennesse on the road, Kentucky looked like a veteran team, grinding out a road win against elite competition behind 18 points from Reeves and a massive rebounding advantage led by Tshiebwe's 13.

That win came despite 19 turnovers, 35% shooting from the floor, Wheeler sitting out with a shoulder injury, and Wallace nursing a back injury picked up in the South Carolina loss.

It's important to note that defense hasn't been Kentucky's calling card this season, with the Wildcats ranking 12th in the SEC in conference play. If the Wildcats can deliver stops as they did in Knoxville, the drumbeat about Calipari's offense and overall coaching style growing stale will most likely quiet down a bit.

What might not quiet down is the possibility of Calipari heading to Texas after the season. Since Calipari admitted that he considered leaving for UCLA in 2019 and then received a "lifetime contract to purportedly take him through the 2029 season in Lexington, Kentucky hasn't won an NCAA tournament game. The Wildcats still have a bubbly tournament resume, albeit with two months of hoops left until Selection Sunday, 13 conference games remaining, and several chances for marquee wins.

If Kentucky can't find a way to make the dance or be a top-eight seed, it may be best for each side to go their separate ways. When you combine Kentucky's possible upheaval with the terrible season Louisville is having, it may take Kentucky's two behemoth college basketball programs a long time to return to anything close to their championship pasts.

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