By JEFFREY McMURRAY
Associated Press Writer
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Kentucky was defending its latest national championship. Indiana's legendary coach, Bob Knight, was calling his 1,000th career game. And the nationally televised battle between two titans of college basketball finished, appropriately, as an overtime thriller.
That was Dec. 8, 1998. Oh what a difference a decade makes.
When the Hoosiers and Wildcats renew their annual rivalry Saturday, little except that national television broadcast is left to resemble the glory days of the interstate grudge match that now has spanned 52 meetings since 1924. Early this season, the young teams have already combined for seven losses, and neither is getting votes in The Associated Press' Top 25.
Don't tell the coaches or the players the rivalry has lost any luster, though.
"Any time Indiana plays Kentucky, it does not really matter where you play it," said Tom Crean, Indiana's first-year head coach. "People are going to show up in a playground. They're going to show up in a neutral site. They're going to show up at home. They're going to show up in another state thousands of miles away. That's the passion of both schools' fans."
The passions of the faithful fans may not have changed, but the programs both find themselves in rebuilding mode.
In two years under coach Billy Gillispie, Kentucky (6-3) has lost some shockers, including against Gardner-Webb and San Diego last year and VMI in this year's opener. While things once looked extremely grim last season for the Wildcats, they were able to surge in Southeastern Conference play and qualify for the NCAA tournament, where they lost in the opening round to Marquette, then coached by Crean.
The struggles of Indiana (5-4) have been even more dramatic. Last month, the program accepted three years of probation although it was spared a postseason ban stemming from a telephone recruiting scandal that focused on former coach Kelvin Sampson.
Things haven't been smooth on the court for the Hoosiers, either. In an exodus of players, some were kicked off the team, others opted to transfer, and top scorer Eric Gordon turned pro after his freshman season.
As a result, the team returns just 30 total points from last year's team -- 28 from senior Kyle Taber and 2 from sophomore walk-on Brett Finkelmeier.
Although even the Hoosiers' own game notes proclaim the program to be one of the most inexperienced in the history of Division I basketball, Gillispie isn't taking the bait of overlooking them.
"I don't buy that," he said. "I think of Indiana as a smart, hard-playing, cohesive unit, and that's exactly what they are."
Gillispie says he isn't much of a historian and declined to signal where the Indiana game ranks among the Wildcats' regular rivalries, which include games against Louisville, Tennessee and Florida. And, his players insist they also believe it's much more than a regular game.
"I still think it's the same," forward Perry Stevenson said. "I hear it from fans everywhere. We could be playing the first game of the season, an exhibition game, and I'll hear someone saying, 'You all had better get IU this year."'
Indiana freshman Tom Pritchard said he understands the meaning of the rivalry, even from his home of Westlake, Ohio.
"Everybody was watching that game," Pritchard said. "All my friends were talking about it. It was the game to watch."
Pritchard draws the assignment of guarding Kentucky's star center, Patrick Patterson. Although Patterson acknowledges Indiana may not present the same challenge it did last year, when Gordon and Co. cruised to a 70-51 victory in Bloomington, he says he still finds the game important.
"We know its a huge game, two great, prestigious basketball programs," Patterson said. "We just want to come out, just play hard and start off well."
Indiana has played four programs from major conferences this year, but lost them all -- Notre Dame, Saint Joseph's, Wake Forest and Gonzaga. Indiana fans gave the players a standing ovation after their 16-point loss to Gonzaga, a sign of gratitude for the fight the clearly outmatched Hoosiers showed.
"It's an incredible thing to know that our fans have our back," Taber said. "As long as we lay it on the end for them, they'll be there backing us the whole time."
But that was in Bloomington. With the next game in Rupp Arena, one of the loudest buildings in college basketball, Crean has been working to try to explain to his players what they're up against.
"It's one of the greatest atmospheres in the country, always has been," Crean said. "Their fans are a lot like ours. They travel well. They're passionate. It's a year-round thing. They care a great deal. Rupp Arena, like Assembly Hall, is a big part of the college basketball landscape."
The next few years could go a long way toward determining whether Indiana-Kentucky can soon carry the same weight as it used to. Stevenson says considering the coaching track records of Crean and Gillispie, he wouldn't count it out.
"Both coaches, they just love what they do," Stevenson said. "Add another chapter to the rivalry."