More Than Bragging Rights On The Line For Cats & Cards Saturday
There's just no downplaying the Louisville vs. Kentucky rivalry, no matter how hard players from both schools tried.
While insisting that the showdown Saturday is part of the journey toward a national championship, they understand its importance in a basketball-crazed state where everything grinds to a halt for several hours and relationships can be affected by the outcome.
"This is the one game everybody in Kentucky looks forward to," Kentucky forward Alex Poythress said. "This is the one game they circle on their calendars. In their eyes, they really could care less about other games, but we're just trying to take it one game at a time, trying to focus on the game we have."
Both schools also look forward to a marquee victory before league play begins next month.
The No. 18 Wildcats (9-3) are looking for their first Top 25 win in four tries. Sixth-ranked and defending champ Louisville (11-1) also wants to beat a ranked foe, a mutual goal that adds more drama to the matchup at Rupp Arena.
Despite the challenge of playing before a standing-room only crowd in the 23,000-seat building, Cardinals guard Russ Smith believes his team just has to approach this as just another game.
"It's obviously a big game, I'm not going to beat around the bush," Smith said Friday. "But I'm from New York. I know it's a big game for the guys and the people in Kentucky, so I play for them.
"I play for my town and I play for my school. It is a rivalry game. For me, I treat it as any other (game) and I will prepare as I would for any other."
For the Wildcats, it's about progressing with their eight-man group of talented freshmen including six high school All-Americans. There have been plenty of moments where 6-foot-9 forward Julius Randle, identical twin guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison and James Young have shown their impressive abilities and controlled games.
But their talents have sometimes been overshadowed in losses to ranked opponents such as Michigan, Baylor and North Carolina, particularly in clutch situations. Though Kentucky coach John Calipari stresses that the better time to judge his young roster will be in February and March, a fervent fan base that was expecting an unbeaten season along with a championship wants more immediate results - especially against their biggest rival located 80 miles west.
Poythress said the Wildcats are eager to deliver.
"We're just trying to show we're still a good team," he said. "I feel like every game we go into, we want to win. So, every game we feel like we need."
Louisville coach Rick Pitino has seen this rivalry from both benches. He led Kentucky to its sixth national title in 1996 and two other Final Fours before taking over the Cardinals in 2001 and guiding them to three Final Fours and their third NCAA title in April.
While Pitino's focus is on building for the postseason, he enjoys the tournament-like atmosphere that figures to be present on Saturday. His message to players and maybe even the Cardinals' fan base is keeping the game in perspective in a long season.
"It's two great traditions and two teams that right now have a shot of getting back to a Final Four if they improve as the season goes on," Pitino said. "I think John (Calipari) would say the same thing, his team is going to have to get a lot better to be a serious contender and I would say the same thing, we're going to have to get better to be a serious contender.
"But we both have the ability to do that."
Louisville returns much of its roster but has been trying to replace point guard Peyton Siva and center Gorgui Dieng and learn the trademark pressure defense that earned the championship.
Though junior college transfer Chris Jones and freshman Terry Rozier are developing into capable successors at the point with help from Smith, 6-10 Mangok Mathiang is a project entering his biggest test against Randle and Kentucky 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein. At the same time, the Cardinals lead the nation in turnover margin (plus-9.4 per game) and have won six in a row.
Making it seven straight wins and two in a row over Kentucky will take work against a taller team, especially with a partisan crowd geared up to make Louisville uncomfortable in enemy territory. Then again, it's the only game that matters in the state.
"This win's probably one of the biggest wins just for a regular-season game," said Wildcats guard Dominique Hawkins, a Richmond, Ky., native who said he cried as a child after Louisville beat Kentucky.
As for Wildcats' fans dislike for the Cardinals, he added, "I really don't know what it's about ... I just know a lot of fans just don't get along with Louisville."