When I was growing up, you could just go ahead and circle the two games each year in which the Louisville Cardinals played the Cincinnati Bearcats in basketball. Like clockwork, those were always the two biggest games on the schedule. Denny Crum and Bob Huggins. A long-standing rivalry with plenty of venom between the two fan bases. It didn’t matter if it was the old Metro Conference, C-USA – whatever affiliation aside, they were huge games no matter what. Fast forward to 2006 and the entrance of both teams into the formidable Big East Conference. Bob Huggins was given an ultimatum in August of 2005 to either resign with a compensation package or be fired within 24 hours. He chose to resign and interim head coach Andy Kennedy took over the fledgling program. Huggins didn’t see eye to eye with new Cincinnati President, Nancy Zimpher and when he was arrested on DUI earlier that year it was the final straw in a string of bad PR incidents for the team under his watch. Huggins would land on his feet eventually by taking the Kansas State job for one brief season and then ultimately leaving for his alma mater, West Virginia, where he led them to a Final Four last season.
Back to Cincinnati….. Huggins finished his run with the Bearcats going 0-2 against Louisville in their Final Four season of 2004-2005. Andy Kennedy actually split two games against Louisville in his first year during the 05-06′ season, but this was also a rebuilding team for Rick Pitino that eventually went to the NIT. Kennedy was replaced that off-season by former Louisville assistant and Rick Pitino protege, Mick Cronin. In his first year as head coach, Cronin lost at home to U of L by 16 points. The following year Louisville lost a strange game at home to Cincinnati, 57-58. Then on to the 08-09′ year where Louisville finshed the season as Big East regular season and tournament champions, and the Bearcats lost another one at home by nine points. Finally, last year the Cards split two games with Cincinnati, eventually losing to them in Madison Square Garden in the Big East Tournament. So, on the surface, it doesn’t seem like that big of a discrepancy. Louisville is 5-3 against Cincinnati in its last 8 meetings. So why does it feel like the rivalry has died?
A few reasons: Cincinnati’s home court, once considered to be among the toughest places to play in the entire country, has seen huge attendance hits and the once-noisy 5th Third Arena has been relegated to a whisper most times. There are still thousands of tickets available for tomorrow night’s game (and the arena only holds a little over 13,000). The constant changing of head coaches, having 3 in 6 years, has created instability in recruiting. But maybe most importantly, the team has not been to the NCAA Tournament since 2005. If they lose tomorrow night it will almost certainly ensure that the Bearcats will be left out of Selection Sunday for a 6th straight season. Compare that to the fact that Louisville sells out a 22,000 seat venue for every home game, have had the same coach for 10 years, and have made the NCAA Tournament in 8 of those 10 years, and it’s clear to see how the two programs have moved in different directions. The two schools are separated by a mere 90 miles and on the surface the head-to-head match-up’s don’t show too much distance between the two teams. But if you look at the overall situation at each program, they couldn’t be farther apart.
– Brent Lepping