Even when the NCAA's selection committee threw the in-state foes into the same region, another fight between the two did not seem inevitable. Kentucky had been inconsistent all season. The Wildcats had gone from hype to horror -- in the eyes of a fan base that fell into the same trance that also trapped media members who gave the collection of McDonald's All-Americans the No. 1 preseason ranking -- as the dream began to die. The idea that this could be the greatest recruiting class of all time quickly became a fairy tale. The Cats weren't ready.
Before the SEC season, the only teams that defeated John Calipari's program were North Carolina, Michigan State and Baylor. The true scrutiny arose when it suffered losses to Arkansas and South Carolina. Losing to a bunch of tourney teams was forgivable. Those L's against a couple of mediocre SEC programs were not.
But Louisville had a variety of issues, too. Luke Hancock had to deal with the recovery from an Achilles injury. Russ Smith clearly missed Peyton Siva and needed some time to adapt to his new backcourt partners, Chris Jones and Terry Rozier. Last season's Louisville frontcourt featured Gorgui Dieng, a shot-blocking, rebounding, swift-passing big man who earned a slot in the first round of this past summer's NBA draft. Six-foot-8 Montrezl Harrell -- a combo forward last season -- became the man inside, and freshman Mangok Mathiang was just too raw to matter.
Plus, a program with a new lineup had to digest Pitino's matchup zone and man-to-man schemes.
That wasn't easy.
Even more difficult? Louisville's early, futile search for itself.
"I think we were struggling to kind of find an identity at that point," Hancock said about the team's mindset entering the December matchup against Louisville.
That's the past.
Friday's meeting features two improved programs.
The Wildcats finally found religion and recognized how much damage they could do if they all worked toward the same goals. And the Cardinals stitched together a successful stretch and closed strong, the same late-season surge they used to make a run to the national title last season.
"We're playing as a team, having a lot more fun," Kentucky point guard Andrew Harrison said. "We're enjoying just being on the court with each other now."
Added star freshman forward Julius Randle, "We just have committed to each other on both ends of the floor."
Kentucky is in the top 25 in adjusted offensive efficiency and adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. Randle, who finished with 17 points in 17 minutes in Kentucky's 73-66 win over Louisville on Dec. 28, has been unstoppable in recent weeks. Harrison is a more mature and trustworthy point guard than he was a few months ago. They're all jelling now.
"You knew it was just a matter of time before they started to click," former NBA and Kentucky star Antoine Walker said. "When you got young guys, especially when you've got five or six guys that are potentially NBA prospects, sometimes, it's hard to get guys to buy into the team concept."
It took five months to get here, but the Wildcats are here, and that's a dangerous situation for every remaining team.
We all wondered what would happen if this crew of NBA prospects ever synchronized. Now, we're witnessing it.