Cat Scratches
Interactive Twitter Facebook

Rivalry game offers golden opportunity for Cats

| No Comments | No TrackBacks
UK will host No. 6/4 Louisville at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday in Rupp Arena. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK will host No. 6/4 Louisville at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday in Rupp Arena. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kentucky-Louisville is always a big game, the biggest on the schedule in the eyes of the fans.

The two teams could enter the matchup without a win and without any relevancy on the national landscape and the arena would still be sold-out and the game would still be televised across the nation.

"This is the one game everybody in Kentucky looks forward to," sophomore forward Alex Poythress said. "This is the one game they circle on their calendar."

This year the importance takes on new meaning for the Kentucky Wildcats, who enter the annual Dream Game matchup ranked 18th in both polls but lacking what many people, including John Calipari, would call a marquee win.

"This schedule that we've played is top-heavy to this point and there are games that we won that are good wins for us, but they're not a team that's in the top five or top 10," Calipari said Friday.

Enter Louisville, the defending national champions, which will walk into Rupp Arena on Saturday (4 p.m. ET on CBS) with an 11-1 record and a No. 4 ranking in the USA Today Coaches' Poll and a No. 6 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25.

Opportunities like Saturday were rife on UK's early-season schedule, but they're not so prevalent on the Cats' (9-3) Southeastern Conference slate. After Louisville, only two of UK's remaining opponents - No. 13/14 Florida and No. 25/25 Missouri - reside in either of the major polls at the moment.

"How many opportunities we have at games like that, how many are we going to have from here on in?" Calipari wondered out loud Friday. "Just not that many opportunities."

Hence, the heightened stakes for Saturday's showdown in Rupp Arena.

To this point, Kentucky has been good but not the great team it was billed to be when it was tabbed the preseason No. 1 team in the country. UK boasts decent wins over Providence (10-2), Boise State (8-3, RPI rank of 36) and Belmont (defeated North Carolina), but the Cats are 0-3 against teams ranked in the top 25.

Those three losses to nationally ranked Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina came by a combined 14 points and away from the friendly confines of Rupp Arena.

"They're all top-10 teams," Coach Cal said. "It's pretty hard to beat those guys. And obviously we're not -- three minutes to go in all those games, it's a one-point game and we were right there -- we're not ready to win those games yet. This team in February is not going to be what it is right now. Guys will get it."

The problem is there may be few opportunities at that point in the season to bolster their NCAA Tournament resume, though Calipari said it's too early to think about things like that.

"It's only a big game if we win," said Coach Cal, who is 4-1 against Louisville since becoming the Kentucky head coach. "If not, it was the next game, move on."

Louisville isn't necessarily swimming in signature wins either -- of the Cardinals' 11 wins, just three are against the top 100 -- but Louisville won't suffer from a perception of quality-less wins because of its returning national championship experience.

"We're both going to have quality wins before March," Rick Pitino said. "We know it's a big game, so we're not concerning ourselves with quality win because we're going to have some before March. We don't know what a quality win is yet. Kentucky, I consider Belmont a quality win, and I think they've played three very difficult teams."

To the national pundits, a win for Kentucky over a quality opponent like Louisville would go a long way toward restoring the preseason faith in this still talent-rich team. More importantly for the Wildcats, it would prove to themselves they've still got the pieces to be a special team.

"It's important to me because it's a big game for us and we gotta prove that we can take on top teams," Hawkins said. "We haven't beat a ranked team, and so it would be a great improvement for us if we can win this game."

Asked if their desire to prove themselves in a game like Saturday's was a reflection of internal doubts of their preseason merits, Poythress said no.

"We just want to play like we've got a chip on our shoulder, to say we're still here, we're still a great team," Poythress said.

To prove they are a great team, Calipari said the Cats will have to "look like a team."

"The winning will take care of itself if we look more like a team, if we play with more energy, and when adversity hits, we respond to it in a positive way," he said.

Louisville is so good because it has some of those defining qualities, Calipari said. The Cardinals know what their roles are and accept them. Some players shoot more than others for Louisville, other guys do the rebounding and the dirty work, but collectively, Calipari said the Cards are all on the same page.

"The guy on our team who does his role better than anyone else is Dominique," Coach Cal said. "What his team needs him to do, he does. And so we're trying now to get everybody else to understand: Do you know what you have to do to help our team become better?"

A team effort will certainly go a long ways against one of the nation's top defenses. With Pitino's signature full-court press and stingy zone, Louisville leads the nation in turnover margin at plus-9.4 a game.

The turnovers lead to easy baskets for an offense that doesn't need any help. With a cast of Russ Smith, Chris Jones, Luke Hancock, Montrezl Harrell and Chane Behanan, the Cards rank No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency rankings.

"They play in fourth and fifth gear," Calipari said. "Here they come, so if you stop at any point, it's like, 'Oh my gosh, you stopped playing.' It is really evident. ... If they see weakness, if they see blood, they're coming."

Kentucky has shown more weaknesses than many thought it would at this point in the season, but Saturday's game offers a chance to press the reset button, if you will. Win or lose, the Cats' season-long goals will remain in front of them, but there's no game like a rivalry game to prove one's self.

"We'll see where we are against a top opponent," Calipari said. "We'll see, and we'll figure out from there where we gotta go. Are we farther along than we thought? Maybe. Are we behind where we thought? Maybe. When you're talking about a team like this, it' more or less the progress and you just take steps along the way."

No TrackBacks

TrackBack URL:

Leave a comment

Recent Comments