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June 2, 2013

Massive achievement gap between state's big-time programs

The gap between the two biggest athletic programs in the state of Kentucky got a little wider Sunday afternoon as Louisville's top 10 baseball program advanced to the NCAA Super Regional for the third time.

In one of college athletics' most-heated rivalries, the 2012-13 season has been an absolute landslide in the major men's sports.

In football, Louisville won the Big East conference, advanced to the 2013 Allstate Sugar Bowl and beat a top 5 team in Florida. The Cardinals finished 11-2 and return nearly all of their starters for next season.

As for Kentucky, the Wildcats lost to Louisville for the second straight season, failed to win a single conference game and finished 2-10 for the season. After the season, Kentucky fired homegrown coach Joker Phillips and replaced him with the defensive coordinator from Florida State, Mark Stoops.

In basketball, there didn't appear to be much of a gap between the two rivals at the beginning of the season when both were ranked in the nation's top three by most preseason polls.

But then things went south for the Wildcats. The painfully young Wildcats were 17-6 when star center Nerlens Noel went down with a knee injury. They finished the regular season 21-10 and still held out hope for an NCAA bid until they lost 64-48 to Vanderbilt in their first game of the SEC Tournament.

The Wildcats went out with a wimper in a 59-57 loss at Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT.

Meanwhile Louisville won the Big East regular-season title, won 16 straight games to end the season with a Big East Tournament championship, another Final Four appearance and the program's third NCAA championship.

The Cardinals finished 35-5 and won what many analysts said was the best national title game in many years. Plus, they return 72 percent of their scoring from the national title team, the highest percentage since Florida won back-to-back titles.

On to baseball, where the Cardinals' continued success rubs salt in the wound of a disappointing UK season. Even though the teams split their regular-season meetings, the Cardinals finished the regular-season ranked in the nation's top 10, won the Big East regular-season crown and swept three games in their hosted NCAA Regional, knocking off Bowling Green, Miami and Oklahoma State, the latter two among the most-accomplished college baseball programs of all time.

The Wildcats, who many believed were a College World Series contender in the preseason, faded down the stretch against the brutal SEC schedule, finishing 30-24 in the regular season before losing to Ole Miss in the first game of the SEC Tournament.

When reduced to simplest form, Louisville football won a BCS bowl, won the men's basketball national championship and advanced to a Super Regional in baseball. Kentucky football finished 2-10 and fired its coach, lost in the first round of the NIT and didn't make the NCAA Baseball Tournament.

Certainly Louisville has had struggles in the recent past - the Kragthorpe years in football and a down year or two scattered about in men's basketball and baseball, but the achievement gap between Louisville and Kentucky is perhaps at its widest point in recent memory.

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