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UK working to keep Louisville game in perspective

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Terrence Jones had 12 points, eight rebounds and five assists in 78-63 victory over Louisville in 2010. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Terrence Jones had 12 points, eight rebounds and five assists in 78-63 victory over Louisville in 2010. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Dec. 3 was the last time Rupp Arena played host to a matchup of top-five teams. Kentucky-North Carolina was billed nationally as a potential preview of the national championship game and was as well attended by NBA personnel as by the Big Blue Nation.

Four weeks later, the Wildcats will once again welcome a highly ranked team to Lexington, but the hype feels different this time around.

While UK-UNC had a massive scope and national interest from fans thinking about the big picture and how many future professionals would be on the floor, Saturday's game at noon between Kentucky and Louisville has a much closer, more personal feel. Sure, viewers from around the United States will tune in, but this one is all about the Bluegrass, all about this rivalry.

With the long-awaited game now less than 24 hours away and Rupp long since sold out, UK head coach John Calipari can think of one group more excited for the game than any other.

"Who are the happiest people in our town right now?" Calipari said. "You could say the media but there are people happier -- ticket scalpers. They're ecstatic."

While the obviously intense feelings on both sides of the intra-state rivalry will lead many blue and red-clad fans to pay exorbitant amounts of money to get in the building, Calipari and his team aren't getting swept up in the hysteria. The game is one of 31 on UK's regular season schedule and they don't want to look at it any other way, regardless how their supporters may feel.

"We have not prepared for this game any different than any other game," Calipari said. "Obviously for our fans and their fans this is an enormous game. For our team it's the next game and hopefully we play well."

Until the Wildcats defeated Lamar on Wednesday in their final game before UofL comes to town, there was scarcely a mention of the Cardinals in practice. Moreover, Anthony Davis and Doron Lamb reported not even having seen Louisville on television yet this season, though that will change on Friday night.

"I've never seen them play," Lamb said. "I didn't even watch Louisville play this year at all. We're watching them tonight. We never had a chance to watch them play. We've always had a game or practice or whatever the case may be. We just never had the time to sit down and watch them play."  

Though the Wildcats are steadfastly refusing to get caught up in everything that makes UK-UofL as intense a rivalry as it is, that doesn't mean they don't have an idea of the craziness swirling around them. The players are connected to fans around them on campus and through outlets like Twitter, so they know what the atmosphere is going to be like Saturday afternoon.

"It's a big game for our fans, but it's a regular game for us really, and we're going to go out there and try to win," Lamb said. "They just want us to win so bad. They're always talking about it. They've been talking about this game since the beginning of the season."

A season ago, Lamb saw firsthand how much beating the Cardinals meant to UK fans. He scored nine points in UK's 78-63 victory, but Lamb knows how important it will be for the Cats to keep their wits about them.

"We don't want to get too hyped before the game," Lamb said. "We are calm. Because when (you) are calm, the game will come to you. I know it will be a tough game. It will be really loud in Rupp. And it will be a rivalry game, so it will be a really hyped game. So we will go out there, let the game come to (us) and just play hard."

UK overcame Louisville's signature brand of high-pressure defense in the New Year's Eve 2010 victory, committing just 13 turnovers against the Cardinals' physical play. The Wildcats will need to be stronger with the ball than in their last outing against Lamar when they committed 17 turnovers and they know it.

"We know they are a very physical team," senior guard Darius Miller said. "They play with a lot of intensity and we've got to match that. We've got to make them try to match our intensity and how tough we play. So hopefully we come out and do that."

Like North Carolina, Indiana and Kansas, Calipari knows Louisville is the kind of opponent capable of beating the Cats even if they play well. The Cardinals have a defense that will keep them in most any game they play and though they have struggled shooting the 3-pointer much of this season, Rick Pitino has shooters like Chris Smith and Kyle Kuric who are more than capable of getting hot. A loss may mean UK fans will be subject to insistent trash talk from their UofL brethren for the next 365 days, but Calipari won't have any trouble turning the page.

"We're worried about us," Calipari said. "Let's just play the best we can play and if that's not good enough, say they come in and make 15 3s and the game becomes physical and we aren't able to play that way then great, let's move on. We have 16 league games and another non-conference game to get going."

The only reason Louisville may be a bigger game than others is because of the unique challenges presented by the Cardinals and the learning opportunities that go along with them. UofL figures to try to turn the Cats over with frequent full-court pressure before dropping into a matchup zone the likes of which UK has not seen this season.

"They are going to play a lot of zone, they will probably start in zone and it's good for us," Calipari said. "We will see where we are against the zone. I imagine that at some point in the game they will start pressing and we will see how we do."

UK will game plan accordingly, but having played in three different games against Pitino's Cardinals in his Kentucky career, Miller knows nothing is set in stone.

"To be honest, I don't know what they are going to do," Miller said. "I know they're going to have something that they are going to do, and they are going to do it well just like they did last year. So we got to have something to match that."

Miller, a native of Maysville, Ky., has been a part of the rivalry for his entire life. He'll be playing in his final UK-UofL game, and there's no question he's going to miss it.

"It's just fun playing these types of games against good competition," Miller said. "We know they're going to be ready to go and we have to too. (With) how good they are, the type of game this is going to be with the atmosphere and the intensity should be a lot of fun."

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