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Let's play ball: Cats anxious to finally hit the floor

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UK held an open practice in the Superdome on Friday, the day before the Wildcats take on Louisville in the Final Four. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK held an open practice in the Superdome on Friday, the day before the Wildcats take on Louisville in the Final Four. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
In an effort to bring you the most comprehensive coverage of the Kentucky basketball team's postseason run, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be teaming up throughout UK's journey in the SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament. You can find stories on the team at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog.

NEW ORLEANS - The Kentucky players have had a recorder or microphone poked in front of their face too many times to count. They've been blinded by cameras, overwhelmed with questions and picked apart by the media types.

To their credit, they say they haven't been consumed by the hype.

Roughly 24 hours until the most anticipated college basketball game in Kentucky since the 1983 Dream Game, arguably one of the most pressure-filled buildups to a matchup in college basketball history, the Wildcats are relieved - check that, ecstatic - the game is just around the corner.

After a week filled with questions about their rivalry with Louisville, the importance of the game and the pressure to win a national championship, the players just want to play ball.

"I feel like I've been here all week," sophomore forward Terrence Jones said. "I don't even know what day it is. I just think we've been coming here doing interviews and dinners and stuff all week."

Finally, they'll get their chance on Saturday at 6:09 p.m. ET in the gargantuan Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. At last, the Final Four - Civil War in the state of Kentucky - is upon us.

"We all wish the game was today," freshman forward Anthony Davis said. "To keep practicing all the time, let's just go out here and play. I'm really anxious. I'm just ready for the game to start."

The buildup for Saturday's game has been unprecedented. College basketball's fiercest rivalry (sorry, Duke-North Carolina), will determine who gets to play for the national championship.

It would be Kentucky's first national title game since 1998 and Louisville's first since 1986.

"We're staying above the fray, the drama," Calipari said. "If you want to buy into that dream, then you buy into it. If you want to play basketball, we're playing a terrific basketball team tomorrow at 5 (CT). That's all we're dealing with."

Shielding themselves from the hype hasn't been easy.

When your fans, the most passionate in college basketball, live, eat and breathe basketball, it's nearly impossible to downplay the significance. When that very same fan base faces its archenemy in the Final Four for the first time in the rivalry's storied history, tensions reach a fever pitch.

Coach Cal has done everything in his power to sequester his team from the attention this week, but that's tough to do when there are hour-long interview obligations every day with the national media.

On the eve of the big game, Calipari thinks his team hasn't paid attention to it.

"It's another basketball game for us and our team," Calipari said. "I know the fans on both sides are going crazy, and that's great. That's part of why you do this thing. But we're not buying into it. I don't believe their team is buying into it.

"I say it again: The physiology in your body, if it's hate, anger, meanness, turns to fear within your body. I don't think any of us are doing that. Our team will be ready to play. Their team will be ready to play."

Preparation for the Louisville game began in the early morning hours on Monday. After the Cats defeated Baylor on Sunday in the Elite Eight, the UK coaching staff took care of the logistics of the trip that night so it could focus on the Cardinals the rest of the week.

Across the state of the Kentucky it feels like basketball Armageddon is approaching, but Calipari said that notion never entered the Joe Craft Center. After all, only one player that plays significant minutes for the Cats is from the state of Kentucky, senior Darius Miller.

"We have not prepared any different for this game than any game this season," Coach Cal said. "The only thing we did with this game, we had to leave a day earlier than we wanted to."

Davis said they've stayed above the drama, shielding themselves from Final Four attention that's been amplified by a prideful rivalry, by letting the fans do the talking.

"We did a great job of that," Davis said. "We're letting all the fans take of all that. We're not worried about the UK-Louisville rivalry. We're just out here to have fun and play basketball."

Davis has had to deal with the pressure and obligations of Final Four weekend more than anyone else. Winner of four major national player of the year awards already, he's been whisked around New Orleans all week in a suit to collect his hardware, pose for pictures and talk about his season.

Davis, the nation's top shot blocker and leader of the Final Four favorite, would have been the center of attention no matter what he won this week, but he admitted the responsibilities that come along with making the Final Four can be taxing.

"It's draining but you've got to keep a great mindset," Davis said. "When we have practice and shoot around, just go hard and have fun."

Rest assured, Anthony, you'll have your chance in less than a day.

Finally, after all the talk, all the stories, all the hype, Kentucky and Louisville will go at it for a chance to play for the national title. At 6:09 p.m. ET on Saturday, nothing else will matter.

"I just want to play the game of basketball," freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist said. "I can't wait."

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