Kentucky is one of the most-populated states in the country without a team in one of the nation's four major professional sports leagues. But what the Bluegrass State lacks in terms of MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL visibility it makes up for with some of the nation's best college basketball. Well, historically anyway.
As Kentucky and Louisville -- winners of 11 combined NCAA Tournaments -- each limp through another substandard season, an unprecedentedly long drought of college basketball success is coming into focus for a basketball-crazed state. Both schools spent time at No. 1 in the 2019-20 season and were destined for favorable NCAA Tournament seedings before the season's cancellation amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since then, it's been rough for both.
Barring a miraculous run through the ACC Tournament, Louisville is destined to miss its third straight NCAA Tournament, and this will mark five straight tournaments in which the Cardinals have not won a game. By the time the 2024 NCAA Tournament rolls around, seven years will have elapsed since Louisville won a game in the Big Dance.
Things aren't much better at Kentucky, as the Wildcats claw for a spot in this year's 68-team field. If UK fails to make the tournament or makes it and fails to advance, this will mark three straight NCAA Tournaments without advancement for UK.
Even proud programs like Murray State and Western Kentucky are having only average seasons compared to their historical standards. The Hilltoppers are below .500 in Conference USA play while Murray State is loitering in the middle of the Missouri Valley Conference during its first season in the league.
At this rate, someone from the group of Eastern Kentucky (ASUN), Morehead State (Ohio Valley) and Northern Kentucky (Horizon) will be the state of Kentucky's best hope for NCAA Tournament representation if the Wildcats don't finish strong.
State of despair
How Division I teams in Kentucky have fared this season.
|Kentucky||17-9||8-5 SEC (T-4th)||39|
|Eastern Kentucky||18-10||11-4 ASUN (3rd)||166|
|Western Kentucky||14-12||6-9 C-USA (T7th)||173|
|Northern Kentucky||16-11||11-5 Horizon (T3rd)||198|
|Murray State||14-13||9-8 MVC (7th)||212|
|Morehead State||17-10||10-4 OVC (1st)||234|
|Bellarmine||12-16||7-8 ASUN (T-7th)||261|
|Louisville||3-23||1-14 ACC (15th)||324|
The state's proud basketball scene has been through droughts in the past and has always bounced back.
Here is a ranking of the worst collective seasons of Kentucky basketball history since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
1. 2020-21: UK's disaster season
NCAA Tournament teams: 1 (Morehead State lost in first round)
It wasn't quite as bad as what Louisville has gone through this season, but Kentucky's 2020-21 campaign was one of the worst by winning percentage in nearly a century for UK. The Wildcats finished 9-16 after starting at No. 10 in the AP Top 25 as a team full of newcomers struggled to gel coming out of the COIVD-19 pandemic.
Kentucky started 1-6 and never recovered. Louisville finished 13-7 but narrowly missed the NCAA Tournament in coach Chris Mack's second season. At one point, Louisville was 9-1 and ranked No. 16 nationally, but the Cardinals wound up as one of the last cuts from the final bracket. Aside from 1991, the 2021 season marks the only year in the modern era of the NCAA Tournament that both Kentucky and Louisville missed the field.
The 2021-22 season also marked a rare down year for Murray State as the Racers finished 13-13 following the departure of superstar Ja Morant. WKU, EKU and NKU each finished above .500 but Morehead State was the only team from the state to make the Big Dance as the No. 14 seed Eagles fell in the first round.
2. 1986-87: Louisville misses dance, Cats struggle
NCAA Tournament teams: 2 (Kentucky lost in first round, Western Kentucky lost in second round)
One season after winning the 1986 national title with a team that featured Milt Wagner, who is the grandfather of current five-star Kentucky commitment DJ Wagner, Louisville missed the Big Dance. The Cardinals finished 18-14 in 1987 while Kentucky was bounced in the first round by Ohio State as a No. 8 seed.
The Wildcats had finished 32-4 and reached the Elite Eight in 1986 during coach Eddie Sutton's first season but lost stars Winston Bennett and Kenny Walker from that team and struggled to replace their production. Similarly, the Cardinals could not recover from the departures of key players like Wagner, Billy Thompson and Jeff Hall.
Current Louisville coach Kenny Payne was a freshman and role player on the 1986 title team and played mostly off the bench for the disappointing 1987 team. Ultimately, he became a starter in his final two seasons and helped lead the Cardinals back to national prominence in 1988 and 1989.
The best team in Kentucky during the 1986-87 season turned out to be Western Kentucky. Though the Hilltoppers lost 60-58 to Louisville during non conference play, they went on to reach the second round of the NCAA Tournament with a final record of 29-9 under first-year coach Murray Arnold.
3. 2021-22: Murray State sets the pace
NCAA Tournament teams: 2 (Kentucky lost in first round, Murray State lost in second round)
Louisville fired Chris Mack after following a 6-8 start and messy offseason extortion scandal involving former assistant Dino Gaudio. The Cardinals proceeded to finish 13-19 for the program's worst winning percentage since 1998 — until this season.
Kentucky, on the other hand, put the misery of the 2020-21 season behind it as West Virginia transfer Oscar Tshiebwe burst onto the scene alongside star freshman guard TyTY Washington and Georgia transfer Sahvir Wheeler. UK spent the entire season in the top 20 and never lost consecutive games…….until it mattered most.
The Wildcats bowed out of the SEC Tournament with a semifinal loss to Tennessee and then suffered a historic loss to No. 15 seed Saint Peter's in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The stunning ending negated the joy of a great regular season for the Wildcats.
Thankfully for the state of Kentucky, Murray State enjoyed a banner year, finishing 31-3 after reaching the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Bellarmine, Morehead State and Northern Kentucky didn't make the tournament but were 20-win teams, and Bellarmine would have made it if not for the NCAA-mandated waiting period for programs transitioning to Division I.
4. 1990-91: Cats on probation
NCAA Tournament teams: 1 (Murray State lost in first round)
Kentucky finished 22-6 (14-4 SEC) in Rick Pitino's second season as coach but was unable to participate in the NCAA Tournament because of violations committed during Eddie Sutton's coaching tenure. Meanwhile, Louisville struggled to a 14-16 mark in the program's first losing season under legendary coach Denny Crum.
Western Kentucky finished just 14-14, leaving Murray State as the only team from the state to reach the NCAA Tournament. The Racers finished 24-9 and earned a No. 13 seed before falling to Alabama in the first round.
Better days returned the following season as the Cardinals made the NCAA Tournament in 1992. Kentucky returned to postseason eligibility with a bang, finishing 29-7 with a 104-103 overtime loss to Duke in the Elite Eight.
5. 2022-23: UL sinks, jury out on UK
NCAA Tournament teams: TBD
The ship has sailed on Louisville, which fell to 3-23 with a loss to Virginia on Wednesday night. This will be the program's worst season since it combined to go 4-42 from 1939 to 1941. The Cardinals have simply been non-competitive in Kenny Payne's first season as coach, and the struggles are only exacerbated by the program's recent run of misfortune. Louisville fans haven't tasted substantive success in a while, and there has been little indication that patience with a new regime will be rewarded anytime soon.
As for Kentucky, the Wildcats have a chance to flip this season's narrative on its head. After a gritty road win at Mississippi State on Wednesday, UK is 18-8 and finally has a second Quad 1 victory. The Wildcats are still a bubble team, but a strong finish and a few NCAA Tournament wins will forgive a multitude of sins. However, if things go the opposite direction, UK will be staring down a daunting reality. Without an NCAA Tournament victory this season, five years will have elapsed between Big Dance wins for the program by the time the event rolls around again in 2024.
With a poor finish from Kentucky, this season could go down among the worst in state history. But the ball is in the Wildcats' court as they prepare to host No. 10 Tennessee on Saturday in another huge game.