There is a battle brewing for women's basketball supremacy in the Bluegrass State.
The Louisville and Kentucky women's teams are ranked in the top 10 and have national championship aspirations after making deep runs in last year's NCAA tournament.
The fifth-ranked Cardinals will start the season Saturday against Loyola-Chicago after their stunning march to the national championship game with an injury-depleted roster. Louisville is healthy, welcoming back three regulars to have one of its deepest rosters in several seasons.
Kentucky, ranked No. 7, opens Friday at Marist with its sights set on reaching the Final Four coming off the Wildcats' third regional final appearance in four years. The Wildcats lost No. 2 career scorer A'dia Mathies to the WNBA but have added two high school All-Americans to the rotation.
"It's just incredible, I think, for the Commonwealth of Kentucky," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said Wednesday of both schools' success. "It's just a real point of pride and basketball brings people together, it excites people, it motivates people. I think it's a terrific place to be and I'm humbled to be here during this exciting time."
The Kentucky men's team is ranked No. 1 and defending national champion Louisville is No. 3.
The women's teams won't have to wait long to settle bragging rights. Louisville travels to Lexington on Dec. 1, aiming to avenge last year's 48-47 loss decided by freshman Janee Thompson's 3-pointer with 8.4 seconds remaining.
Before that in-state showdown, the Wildcats and Cardinals continue honing the chemistry that has both teams excited about their championship prospects.
Louisville's cohesion has been a work in progress in recent years as hip injuries sidelined senior guard Tia Gibbs for the past two seasons while 6-foot-1 senior forward Asia Taylor sat out last year. Junior forward Shawnta' Dyer tore the medial collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments in her left knee last December.
The Cardinals (29-9, 11-5 Big East Conference) endured some frustrating losses along the way but hit stride in the NCAA tournament, highlighted by a monumental 82-81 upset of No. 1 and defending champion Baylor in the regional semifinal. Louisville led for all but a few seconds in the final minute, winning on Monique Reid's two free throws with 2.6 seconds left.
Upsets of Tennessee and California followed before Connecticut trounced Louisville 93-60 in the championship at New Orleans.
Taylor can't wait to be part of what she hopes is a return trip down Interstate 65 to Nashville for this year's Final Four.
"I was happy for my teammates and the program," she said, "but as a competitor you want to be out there and be in a big game like that. The fact that I knew I was coming back was my motivation to work hard."
Though forward Sheronne Vails is out for the year following offseason knee surgery, Walz is eager to see if having his healthiest squad in some time can carry the Cardinals past favored UConn in the newly renamed American Athletic Conference and deeper in the NCAA tournament.
Besides senior guard and leading scorer Shoni Schimmel (14.2 points), Louisville returns junior forward Sara Hammond (10.8 points, 6.4 rebounds), wing Antonita Slaughter and junior guard Bria Smith (9.5 points).
"We'll probably have the biggest game of rock-paper-scissors that you've ever seen, and the last five will be our starters," Walz joked about the process of choosing a lineup. "It's a great problem to have."
Mitchell can say the same thing about his own well-stocked Kentucky roster.
The returns of senior forward and leading scorer DeNesha Stallworth (12.5 points, 6.0 rebounds) and Samarie Walker (8.7 points, 8.1 rebounds) provide a strong post presence for the Wildcats (30-6, 13-3 Southeastern Conference), who fell to UConn in the regional final for the second straight year.
"It took some months, and we still look back and wonder why didn't get over that hump," Stallworth said. "We've gotten better in our offensive execution and are looking good. We don't want to be in that spot (of missing the Final Four) for the fifth straight year."
Kentucky's backcourt is its deepest area with senior Kastine Evans, juniors Bria Goss and Jennifer O'Neill and sophomore Thompson able to play anywhere in the three-guard alignment. The additions of McDonald's All-Americans Linnae Harper and Makayla Epps could pay off right away for a Wildcats team determined to go a step further — and possibly meeting a familiar foe along the way.
"We're such a dynamic team this year that there's not just one scorer anymore," Evans said. "We're just really fortunate to have a whole bunch of scoring opportunities on this team."