The devotion of Kentucky fans to their college basketball teams is legendary -- and with good reason.
The University of Kentucky, which won its fifth national championship in 1978 , has been a top power for decades, first under the legendary Adolph Rupp and now under head coach Joe B. Hall.
The University of Louisville holds the NCAA record for the most consecutive winning seasons (37) and won its first national crown in 1980 under the tutelage of coach Denny Crum.
With such a tradition of excellence in both camps, many fans think a Kentucky-Louisville rivalry should be as much of a natural match-up as North Carolina vs. Duke, or Southern Cal vs. UCLA. But except for their women's teams , Kentucky and Louisville haven't collided on the basketball courts since the 1959 NCAA tournament, and their last regular season contest was in 1922.
Another post-season confrontation now appears likely, since both teams wound up in the Mideast Regional of this year's NCAA tournament and, barring a major upset, they figure to meet Saturday night in Nashville, Tenn. Beyond that, however, the prospects for building up a regular rivalry appear as bleak as ever.
Though athletic officials at Louisville would jump at the chance to play the Wildcats on a regular basis, the powers in charge of athletics at Kentucky have resisted all suggestions to schedule such a game. The official reason is that it would be unfair for Kentucky to play the Cardinals while not scheduling the state's other college teams.
Poppycock, sniff the Louisville partisans and some neutral observers who believe the Kentucky athletic hierarchy simply is unwilling to do anything that would make the Wildcats share the spotlight with the Cardinals.
''It really doesn't have that much to do with basketball,'' observes Billy Reed, sports editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal. ''It has more to do with the fact that historically the University of Kentucky has considered itself the state university and there's been a feeling that basketball is a symbol of the colleges' relative level of importance within the state.
''I think it's been UK's feeling that if they play Louisville or any other state university and lose, that would indicate a lessening of their prestige and importance so that the next time they go to the state legislature for money for a particular program it might not be there,'' Reed opines.
Kentucky lawmakers have passed resolutions calling for the two schools to play one another, but those entreaties have been ignored since they lack the force of law.
This year, however, a bill has been introduced in the Kentucky General Assembly that would legally require Kentucky and Louisville to meet annually in both basketball and football. And the sponsor, state Rep. Louie Guenthner of Louisville, says he introduced the measure more as a money-raiser than as a sports fan.
Guenthner, a Reagan-style Republican conservative, says millions of dollars would be generated by the mandated athletic events he envisions. And that, he believes, would help relieve the severe budget problems being felt by both universities in these recessionary times.
''I'm dead serious about this,'' he says. ''When both schools are coming to the legislature for more money, it's ridiculous that they have this resource to raise money and won't use it.''
Studies by Guenthner and the legislature's research arm indicate a Kentucky vs. Louisville series in football and basketball would draw $560,000 the first year just in network television rights to the games.
Despite its obvious fiscal implications, the bill is given little chance of enactment. Though University of Kentucky athletic officials refuse even to comment on Guenthner's proposal, their antipathy to the idea is well known. And the University of Louisville is centering its lobbying efforts elsewhere.
Ironically, if the bill ever does get out of the legislative committee where it has been stalled since mid-February, its fate will be at least partially influenced by a former University of Kentucky basketball player now serving as majority leader of the state House of Representatives. And Rep. Jim LeMaster, a Lexington Democrat, isn't a supporter of legislating sports events.
''As a fan, I'd like to see the game,'' LeMaster said in a recent interview. ''As a former player, I'd like to see the game. But I don't think we as a legislature have any business regulating which schools play each other.''
LeMaster, who was part of the Kentucky varsity squad from 1965-68, said the state has ''some serious problems in higher education which will take most of our time without getting into the business of scheduling games.''
It's all been brought on, he said, because ''Louisville is far more prominent now than they were'' during his playing days for Adolph Rupp. The Cardinals have ''always had good teams but they've been even better for the last 10 years'' under Crum, he added.
LeMaster feels the only way Kentucky and Louisville are likely to meet in basketball anytime soon will be if the teams do collide again as expected in the NCAA tournament.
For the record, the last time that happened, the underdog Cardinals surprised Kentucky with a 76-61 upset in the 1959 Midwest Regional.