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February 28, 2006
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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Usually, when the calendar turns to March, fans of Kentucky's two basketball powers start wondering about the possibility of a Final Four trip.
Kentucky has a tough schedule remaining with games against No. 11 Tennessee and No. 17 Florida and is on the bubble to make the field. A year after reaching the Final Four, Louisville is a long shot for even the conference tournament in its first Big East season.
Not counting 1991, when the Wildcats had the best record in the Southeastern Conference but probation kept them out of postseason play, it's been 30 years since an NCAA tournament opened without Louisville or Kentucky - and usually both - in the mix.
''I think if neither one of them makes the NCAA tournament, they'll probably drape the state in black,'' said Larry Conley, a broadcaster who played at Kentucky under Hall of Fame coach Adolph Rupp.
These aren't abysmal teams by any stretch. But in the Bluegrass state, where even the high school basketball tournament sells out Rupp Arena, they might as well be.
''I've had people come up to me and say their family's not getting along well because we're losing,'' Kentucky guard Ravi Moss said.
With no major professional team of any sport in the state, college basketball is the undisputed king.
Along North Carolina's Tobacco Road, four Atlantic Coast Conference teams are packed into a short stretch of basketball bliss. But Kentuckians boast of living in the true capital of college basketball because the obsession with two big programs - only about an hour apart - reaches every nook and cranny of the state.
The state's four other Division I-A programs have capitalized by recruiting players hungry for a flavor of Bluegrass basketball. In fact, if the NCAA tournament started today, the two most likely entries from Kentucky might be Murray State and Western Kentucky.
Still, neither of those teams from mid-major conferences is ranked. In the latest Associated Press poll released Monday, no Kentucky team got a single vote.
''The struggles of Louisville and Kentucky are aberrations,'' said Murray State coach Mick Cronin, a former assistant at Louisville. ''That shows you the state of the game in college basketball. With kids going to the pros left and right, it's hard to maintain stability.''
Kentucky's frontcourt was decimated this year with the graduation of Chuck Hayes and attempts by Kelenna Azubuike and Randolph Morris to enter the NBA draft. Neither was picked, but Morris was reinstated with the Wildcats after a half-season suspension for his association with a sports agent.
Louisville last week faced West Virginia in a rematch of its regional final from a year ago with only four of 13 players from that Cardinals team on the current roster. Besides departures, the Cardinals have been weakened by injuries, most recently a knee injury that will keep sophomore center David Padgett out for the year.
''Kentucky basketball is like Notre Dame football,'' Pitino said. ''They're not happy unless they're unhappy. They want a Final Four every year. They'll take an Elite Eight, accept a Sweet 16. Anything less than that and they're miserable.''
The Wildcats have won more games than any other Division I program in history but haven't reached the Final Four since their 1998 national title - Smith's first year.
Already, the ''Fire Tubby'' postings are showing up in Internet chat rooms, even though Smith has taken his team to the NCAA tournament - and usually deep into it - every year he's been there.
''That's just Kentucky basketball,'' said Travis Ford, who played for the Wildcats and coached at Eastern Kentucky before taking a job this year to coach Massachusetts. ''You could be sitting 25-6, and they'd want to know, 'Why did you lose those six?'''
Associated Press writer Will Graves in Louisville, Ky., contributed to this report.For more coverage of the Kentucky Wildcats, check out CatsPause.com.
For more coverage of the Louisville Cardinals, check out CardinalSports.com.
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