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Coach Cal likes timing of U of L showdown

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John Calipari has a 4-0 record against Louisville as Kentucky head coach. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) John Calipari has a 4-0 record against Louisville as Kentucky head coach. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
On Friday afternoon, John Calipari stepped to the podium for his customary pregame question-and-answer session. It was just like any other such press conference, only everything was turned up a notch.

Barely 24 hours before Kentucky's annual rivalry matchup with Louisville, the horde of reporters surrounding him was bigger than normal. There were a few extra cameras and the dais was packed with microphones and recorders. Even Coach Cal's comments were somewhat exaggerated.

He typically praises the Wildcats' upcoming opponent, breaking down the problems his team with which his team will be faced. When it came to talking about the Cardinals, Coach Cal was downright effusive.

"This is a great challenge for us, and if you ask me I would say, with what I'm seeing right now, you're talking about a team that should be or is the odds-on favorite to win the whole thing," Calipari said. "That's how good I think they are."

The fourth-ranked Cardinals come in having won six straight games. They have lost just once this season and it came at the hands of top-ranked Duke. Rick Pitino has a deep and talented rotation with nine players averaging 15 minutes or more per game. Coach Cal is keenly aware; he named eight of those nine players in answering the first question posed to him.

"I've watched tape and they are really good with really good players," Calipari said.

With all that talk, you might think Calipari is dreading this year's "Dream Game." You'd be wrong.

"This comes at a great time for us," Calipari said. "We just are winding down a bunch of workouts, doing different things, trying to change mindsets, trying to change habits and then you're going against an opponent like this that's maybe the best team in the country with talented players that at each position they can beat you. This is what we need. Let's see where we are."

Saturday's game, which will be played at 4 p.m. ET on CBS, will mark the third consecutive outing the Cats have had a week to prepare for. Going through "Camp Cal," UK showed "a little" improvement two weeks ago against Portland, then more significant progress last week against Marshall. To compete on the road against a team that returns the core of last year's Final Four team, the Wildcats better take an even bigger step forward.

"They are a well-oiled machine," Calipari said. "We are a work in progress. I still like my team. I like that they're working hard, they're getting better, I'm feeling more comfortable, yet really a work in progress."

Especially on defense, U of L is capable of capitalizing on any cracks in the Cats' foundation. The Cardinals allow just 0.794 points per possession, making them the only team in the NCAA allowing fewer than 0.800. Louisville is also the only team in the country to force turnovers on more than 30 percent of its opponents' possessions.

"You've got to be strong with the ball," Calipari said. "You've got to have great spacing. You can't just be muddled up because they leave and trap. They do a great job of trying to muck up the game."

Only a few weeks ago, playing in such a game would be a much more terrifying prospect, but the return and emergence of Ryan Harrow has steadied the Cats' ship. The sophomore point guard has improved by leaps and bounds over his last three games, during which time he has averaged 14.3 points, 4.0 assists and just 1.0 turnover.

Those performances, however, haven't come against the likes of Louisville.

"Ryan puts people in the right spots and he's really gotten better and this'll be a great challenge for him because this is going to be a physical, body-on-body game and this is exactly what he needs," Calipari said.

With Russ Smith, Peyton Siva and company pressuring the ball in both the half and full court, Harrow and his fellow guards will need to be on their game. Mistakes are inevitable against that style, but Calipari also believes it will create opportunities. In fact, it could create exactly the kind of game UK is capable of winning.

"The good news for us is that this is a game of less plays than more players making plays," Calipari said. "That plays to our favor. It's less having to execute, which we're really too young to be a great execution team, and it's more of reacting to 2-on-1s, 3-on-2s, 4-on-3s, attacking the basket, stuff that we do better."

Even if Calipari is proven right, the Cats will play an unfamiliar role: underdog. That's not something the players necessarily mind.

"That's something that people want," Archie Goodwin said. "You want people to doubt you because that brings out the best in you. It's always a great feeling to prove everyone wrong."

It will be a similarly great feeling for the Cats if they can send the 20,000-plus fans who will pack the KFC Yum! Center home stewing over UK's fifth consecutive win in the series.

"Having the fans there just really be into the game and we go in there and beat them and just pretty much mess up their whole day, their week or whatever, that's something to look forward to," Nerlens Noel said. "Tomorrow, that's something we'll be looking to do."

Since the Cardinals opened their new building for the 2010-11, UK has won there three times - once against U of L that season and twice more in the NCAA Tournament last year. Among current Cats, only Kyle Wiltjer has played significant minutes in the Yum! Center though, which makes this a completely new experience.

"We're going to find out where we are in a lot of positions and where we have to go," Calipari said. "But this team is a work in progress. I'm pleased that we're getting better. I don't know what that means when you start playing some more games and teams like this, but I do know we're getting better and I'm pleased with that."

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