On the occasions when talk has drifted away from the first ever Final Four Dream Game, the fourth-seeded Cardinals are cast as the long-shots playing against the prohibitive favorites. The Wildcats are routinely described as being in another class than U of L, or even Ohio State and Kansas, the other two teams still left playing in the NCAA Tournament.
It's a notion that John Calipari summarily dismisses.
"There are good players on every team in this tournament and every other team has good players," Calipari said. "The players are why they are here. We all have good players."
By his own admission, Rick Pitino has played the David and Goliath card to great effect in his long career, but now is not the time. Even with UK having as many as six first-round picks according to NBA Draft projections, Pitino is delivering a message similar to Calipari's in preparing his team.
"We've cut down the nets twice (after winning the Big East Tournament and the Midwest Regional) and I don't want my guys to feel they're inferior," Pitino said. "It's easy to feel inferior to Kentucky because they go on the draft board all the time. You see the one pick in the draft, two pick in the draft. You won't want that feeling going into it because you'll play like inferior players. We don't want that underdog mentality."
Both coaches agree not only that the talent gap between the two teams isn't as wide as some suggest but also that the outcome on Saturday will be decided by the two sets of players taking the floor.
Fans have gotten to see these players go head-to-head once already this season in a hard-fought defensive battle, but foul trouble prevented these two teams from fielding their best players for much of that game on Dec. 31. With nine McDonald's All-Americans between the Cats and Cards, the individual and collective team battles on Saturday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome could prove even more interesting than the buildup to the game, and there's no doubt they will have more to do with the team that moves on to play in the national championship game.
With that in mind, we take a look at some of the matchups that are most likely to determine Saturday's winner.
Point guard play: Marquis Teague (and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) vs. Peyton Siva
Heading into that game on New Year's Eve, Kidd-Gilchrist, UK's shutdown defender on the perimeter, was all set to check Siva, Louisville's lightning quick point guard, just as DeAndre Liggins had done the year before. In a pregame shootaround, Calipari made a change, electing to start Teague on Siva.
Teague more than held his own defensively, holding Siva to eight points on 2-for-13 shooting, four assists and three turnovers. Teague, though, struggled on the offensive end with five points, five assists and four turnovers. Neither point guard is the same player three months later.
UK knows that, perhaps more than any other point guard it has faced this season, Siva sets the tone for his team with the way he can penetrate, pass and finish in the paint. He's averaging 7.0 assists in U of L's tournament run,
"He's been playing very well lately," Teague said. "He's quick, gets in the lane, makes plays and he can finish at the rim. We just want to try to contain him as much as possible."
Teague, whom Coach Cal calls a "pitbull" on defense, proved he is more than capable of handling the defensive assignment on Siva, but stopped short of saying Kidd-Gilchrist won't take a turn on him.
"We probably both will guard him at some point," Teague said.
Even if he does guard Siva from tip to buzzer, Teague's role on the other end of the floor is even more important. Like Siva, the freshman point guard has evolved since he last faced the school he nearly attended, striking a balance between his dynamic open-floor ability and the need to run his team in the half court at times.
"I feel like I got a lot better," Teague said. "I'm just playing with a lot better pace right now, making better decisions and just knowing when to get the ball to my teammates or knowing when to go score."
Kentucky was sternly tested by a U of L defense that used combination of 2-3 zone and full-court pressure to force the Cats into a season-high 21 turnovers. Teague knows he's going to need to handle himself well against a unit that ranks first in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency according to kenpom.com.
"They're real good on defense," Teague said. "They pressure the ball a lot, try to force you into turnovers. You just got to stay calm and try to pass the ball through press."
Shot-blocking showdown: Anthony Davis vs. Gorgui Dieng
Kentucky and Louisville each have storied basketball programs, but big men Davis and Dieng have each rewritten the shot-blocking record books for their respective schools.
The pair has combined for 299 rejections - and a wingspan of 178 inches - on the season, but the two defensive menaces hardly got a chance to go up against one another in Rupp Arena on Dec. 31. In spite of foul trouble, Davis and Dieng each had six blocks.
"I know he's long," Dieng said. "You have to hit him because he's going to go for every offensive rebound. He's so long and athletic. I think this game on the backboard is going to be very important."
For all their defensive prowess, both players are generally good at avoiding fouls, though Davis has been better. Dieng averages 3.3 fouls in playing 32.6 minutes per game, while Davis fouls just under two times in 31.7 minutes per game. Davis has also fouled out just once this season while Dieng has fouled out five times.
Interestingly, both teams will benefit from the experience of going up against an elite shot-blocker every day in practice.
"We're used to it," Teague said. "We play against Anthony every day and Terrence (Jones), they block shots great. That's an easy adjustment for us every day because it's something we experience every day."
Shot blocking isn't the only thing the two young players have in common, as both boast burgeoning offensive games. As the season has progressed, Davis has bloomed offensively, flashing range out to the 3-point line and an at times deadly post-up game. Dieng, relatively new to basketball, has done much the same, even hitting the first 3 of his career in the Sweet 16 against Michigan State.
"Gorgui came around a lot," Siva said. "We're just thankful that he's back there helping us out because he bails us guards out plenty of times, blocking shots and him staying out of foul trouble. One thing that a lot of people haven't noticed is Gorgui is really just fine tuning his offensive game."
Davis has received plenty of attention all season, first as the nation's top incoming freshman and most recently as the Associated Press Player of the Year, while Dieng has only recently popped up on the national radar with strong play in the Big East and NCAA Tournaments. Dieng was gracious and humble in talking about facing Davis, but his teammates shed some light on what kind of opportunity this could be for the Senegal native.
"I think he's the second-best big man in the country," Chris Smith said of Dieng. "If he wants to be the best he has to beat the best."
The clash between the two could go a long way in determining the national semifinal winner.
Senior against senior: Darius Miller vs. Kyle Kuric
In the lead-up to the first installment of the Dream Game, Coach Cal was adamant in saying how vital limiting Kuric was to his team's success. The senior has made 145 3-pointers over the past two seasons, but he was held to just two shots and zero points while being primarily guarded Miller, his fellow upperclassman.
"I hadn't been shadowed like that all year," Kuric said. "No one did that to me to that extent the rest of the season. They were denying the entire corner and the entire wing."
With so many other storylines in play this week, Kuric, one of only two seniors in the Cardinal rotation, has been somewhat of a forgotten man, but not by the Wildcats.
"He can knock down shots," Miller said. "He's a really good player, so if he gets going, it's going to be really tough for us."
The same could be said about Miller, who had seven points and eight turnovers the last time out against Louisville. After back-to-back scoreless games in the SEC Tournament, Miller has averaged 13.0 points off the bench in the NCAA Tournament, including 19 in wins over Iowa State and Indiana. The Maysville, Ky., native figures to have a significant height advantage over whichever Cardinal is defending him, so he could have ample opportunities to get off shots from both midrange and deep.
Style of play: Cal vs. Pitino
With close to a week to a prepare for both teams, perhaps the greatest unknown going into this game is how the two coaches will have their teams attack each other.
"With the five days to prepare, I would imagine they've come up with a few ways to try to - I don't want to use the word 'trick' - but to confuse a team that starts three freshmen and two sophomores," Calipari said. "I have no doubt that (Pitino) has."
Coach Cal has said he expects a fast-paced game "in the 90s," but the way these two teams play defense makes that seem a little farfetched. One thing we do know is that UK will run when opportunities are there, but U of L, based on tournament play, could be more apt to slow it down. The Cardinals are playing just 62.5 possessions per game, nearly five below their season average.
The Cards have also switched up defenses in the postseason. For the most part, Pitino has become a coach that relies exclusively on a pressuring 2-3 zone, but he scrapped it in the second half of an Elite Eight win over Florida. The Gators made 8-of-11 3s in the first half, but were 0 for 9 in the second.
No matter what, the Cats know to expect to see heavy doses of the full-court pressure that gave them fits back in December.
"We know they're going to press the whole game," Teague said. "We think they're going to play a 2-3 zone but we won't really know until the game starts."