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Notebook: Wildcats continue to seek improvement against Louisville

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It's finally here. One of the greatest rivalries in all of sports. Kentucky versus Louisville. Saturday. KFC Yum! Center. And we've got you covered here at Cat Scratches as we get ready for the big game tomorrow. Guy Ramsey already covered many of the key components of Saturday's matchup, but here are a few more story lines heading into the game:

Players aware of rivalry in spite of youth

It's the nature of the beast for Kentucky basketball. Great players come and go year in and year out for the Wildcats under John Calipari. It's the give and take when it comes to recruiting the best talent in the country each and every year to give UK the best chance of winning a national title.

With that in mind, as Kentucky continues to bring in the best of the best, their short time as Wildcats sometimes means that the traditions and rivalries of Kentucky basketball can get lost in the mix.

Kentucky's storied rivalry with Saturday afternoon's opponent Louisville may not be the biggest game of the year for these Wildcats. It may just be "another game" for them. But to the fans, it's the biggest game of the year. Every year.

But do the players have any idea what this rivalry is all about? Calipari says not yet.

"They don't," said Calipari. "But they'll feel it once the game starts."

However, with the popularity of Kentucky's players on campus and their presence on the various social media platforms, how could these guys not at least understand the importance of this game to fans on both sides of the rivalry?

"It's a big game, especially for the state of Kentucky," said Kentucky freshman center Nerlens Noel. "We're ready to play this game out and really give it our all."

While Kentucky fans would give anything for a win Saturday over Louisville, the team, after seeing vast improvement last weekend against Marshall, is hoping that they can see just how far they've come since then against one of the best teams in the country.

"It's a big rivalry but that's something we're not really too focused on right now," said Noel. "We know how the rivalry is, but that's something we can't be focused on. We're focused on going in and playing hard and winning and listening to what Coach Cal tells us to do."

Dieng playing, presents interesting matchup for Noel

Louisville center Gorgui Dieng has been out of the Louisville lineup since breaking a bone in his wrist on Nov. 23. At the time of his diagnosis, it appeared there was a chance that the standout big man would miss the Kentucky game on Dec. 29. But a quick recovery and thumbs up from the team doctor has allowed Dieng to return to the Cardinal lineup. In fact, he's expected to start this Saturday against the Cats.

Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said that Dieng probably could have played in their Dec. 19 game against Florida International, but felt it would be best to hold him out one more game despite the desire to knock some of the rust off.

With Dieng cleared to play, it presents one of the more intriguing matchups of the game as two defensive forces in Dieng and Kentucky freshman center Nerlens Noel will go toe-to-toe in the post. It will be one of the biggest challenges in Noel's young career.

"He's a bigger dude, about 6-10, pretty mobile for his size and he's a physical player," said Noel. "I'm ready for that challenge."

Dieng has played in just five games this year compared to Noel's 11, but Dieng is a junior and has played at this level, at a high level, over the last two years. With Dieng back in the fold for Louisville, the matchup in the post between these two players should be one for the ages.

Noel is averaging 10.7 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.7 blocks and 2.7 steals per game this year. Dieng, in his five games, is putting up 8.2 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, and 1.6 steals per contest. That's a good sign for Kentucky as Dieng tries to get back up to speed with Noel having the statistical edge in each category in 2012.

Kentucky a different team for first road test since Notre Dame


When Kentucky travels to Louisville for Saturday's annual matchup with the Cardinals, it will be their first road trip since the Wildcats lost to Notre Dame exactly one month earlier on Nov. 29. The Cats looked overmatched against the Irish in their first true road game of the season, falling 64-50.

UK has played five games since then, going 4-1 over that span heading into the Louisville game. The Cats are riding a four-game win streak, and look like a different team since that loss to Notre Dame. At least they hope so.

"We've really focused in on making sure we play hard at all times," said Noel. "That was our main problem then. This time around for our second away game, we're just really focused on playing hard and competing, which is the main thing for us."

Calipari has harped on his team for not being competitive and playing hard for 40 minutes a game. Because the players haven't been able to bring that out by themselves, effort and intensity have been main focuses of practice since Kentucky's two losses to Notre Dame and Baylor. Calipari liked what he saw from his team against Marshall last Saturday, and he's hoping to see more improvement a week later.

"We all know we've got to see some improvement," said Calipari. "This is a game that if you physically can't withstand this game, then it's going to show because they are physically - they're coming after you that way. So we've got to be able to fight and battle for 40 minutes.

"This thing is, alright, let's battle. Let's see what we've worked on. (Thursday) we had a terrific practice, but we'll see how we do (Friday) and then we'll get on the bus and go down."

Hood still out, will miss Louisville game

Kentucky junior guard Jon Hood will miss his second consecutive game with an upper respiratory illness. Hood was held out of practice before the Marshall game, did not dress, and has since missed practice as he tries to recover from his illness.

In the mean time, Calipari has asked that he take care of his health, but try and keep his distance from the team in efforts to keep the rest of the team healthy.

"We've kept him away from the team because I don't want anybody else catching it," said Calipari. "We got a couple other guys that have got some colds now. So we just tried to tell him, 'Stay away 'til you're healthy where nothing is contagious.' "

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