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As families and friends gathered for Christmas, the rivalry between Kentucky and Louisville dominated conversation. Talk of the matchup between the Wildcats and Cardinals - both unbeaten and ranked in the top five - has been everywhere all week.
Well, except maybe the Joe Craft Center.
"I'm not making this bigger than it is, because it's not our season," John Calipari said on the eve of the annual UK-U of L showdown.
That's not just idle talk either.
Rather than spending every waking moment preparing for the matchup between No. 1 Kentucky (12-0) and No. 4 Louisville (11-0), Coach Cal actually dismissed his team for a few days following the Cats' dismantling of UCLA last weekend in Chicago.
"We took a Christmas break, we got our minds off basketball, we came back, we started working," Calipari said. "We didn't have two weeks to work on what we're doing."
Instead, UK reconvened on Christmas Eve ahead of Saturday's 2 p.m. ET game at Louisville's KFC Yum! Center. The group that returned, if you ask the Cats, was a refreshed one.
"It helped us a lot," Andrew Harrison said. "Just to be able to focus on our families and stuff like that, not worry about basketball or about stuff that goes on here. It's being able to get together with your family and have a nice time."
The Cats now hope to have fun again this weekend, but not the relaxing time they surely enjoyed at their homes across the country. Neither the Cardinals nor their fans will have a home-cooked meal waiting for Kentucky on Saturday.
"We need somebody to punch us in the face," Calipari said. "Let's see if we can still have fun. Can we enjoy this? If we're a world-class team, you enjoy this. Even when they're coming after you, you enjoy it. And so it's gonna be a tough game for us. We know that."
Willie Cauley-Stein, the only Wildcat who will be in uniform to play at Louisville before, is eager for the challenge.
"It just makes the game that much more passionate," Cauley-Stein said. "It's not dull. It's not quiet. It's going to be loud the whole time. The energy level is going to be up, your adrenaline is going to be pumping from the gate. Those games are the best to play in."
From Cauley-Stein to the Harrison twins, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee, UK has more experience to call on than in past seasons. The fact remains, however, that this will be the Cats' first true road test of the season.
"This is going to be the craziest first road game for even us," Cauley-Stein said. "I can only imagine what it'll be like for the freshmen. Right when you walk in the gym, dudes are going to be yelling at you, cussing at you. You just have to smile like, 'This is it. This is game time. This will be fun.' "
Adding fuel to the fire, of course, is the rivalry.
A season ago, UK took down Louisville at Rupp Arena in December before ending the Cardinals' season in the Sweet 16. The two wins gave Coach Cal six in seven tries against Rick Pitino since he arrived in Lexington, only serving to intensify the well-established animosity the two fan bases share.
"I still don't understand why it's so hated because I'm from Texas and A&M and the University of Texas, they're rivals, but it's not like this," Andrew Harrison said. "People genuinely hate each other, so it's crazy."
But after the opening tipoff, the passion only means so much and basketball takes over. Once that happens, expect a battle.
By any measure, UK and U of L are among the nation's top defensive teams. In fact, they rank first and second nationally in points per possession allowed with historically low averages of 0.728 and 0.752, respectively.
For that reason more than any other, the Cats know they're going to have a hard time sustaining their streak of 12 consecutive double-digit wins to start the season.
"We know they're not going to go away early," Andrew Harrison said. "We know we're going to have to fight as hard as we can for the full 40 minutes to stay close in their building."
Clearly, the Cats have a lot of respect for their opponents, both individually and collectively.
"It's the next game for us, but it's a great game because of how they play, how they're coached, that they got terrific talent," Calipari said. "Don't ever take that away from those kids. They are talented."
That starts with Montrezl Harrell, the star junior forward on every early shortlist for national player of the year honors. Harrell is averaging 16.7 points and 10 rebounds and presents matchup problems for every opponent with his motor, athleticism and 6-foot-8, 240-pound frame, but he's surrounded by three other double-digit scorers.
"(Wayne) Blackshear, (Terry) Rozier, they're all -- listen, they're all of them able to get 30 points," Calipari said. "Harrell. C'mon. Their big guys, I mean, they'll block shots, they got great size. There's not a guy out there that I don't think, like, 'Well, he can't play.' They all can play, and they all can get 30, and they probably are all gonna try and get 30. Just how it is in this game."
Perhaps most worrisome about U of L is its ability on the offensive glass. The Cardinals rank 12th nationally in offensive-rebounding percentage, grabbing 40.2 percent of their own misses. By contrast, UK is 250th in defensive-rebounding percentage, allowing opponents to rebound more than a third of their own misses.
"Defensive rebounding is our biggest issue," Calipari said. "Guard rebounding. I mean, those are major concerns, because now a team can shoot 30 percent and still beat you. Just shoot it and go rebound. That's a concern of mine. If our guards start rebounding -- we should. We're big, we just don't. We don't get in there and mix it up. We've done stuff here the last 10 days to try and cure it, but it's just going to be one of those things."
More than the rivalry, the rankings or the unbeaten records, that's why UK-U of L matters for this Kentucky team. It's the ideal measuring stick.
"This game is a different kind of game for us, but we're excited to find out where we are right after Christmas," Calipari said. "Where's our team stand at this point?"
Anyone who didn't know the answer found out Saturday.
The Cats came out firing against UCLA, building a 16-0 lead and hitting two 3s before the second platoon even checked in. Once it did, Devin Booker hit two more 3s in a personal eight-point barrage that gave UK an insurmountable 24-0 lead.
From there, UK had to find a new opponent.
"We have to keep playing against (ourselves)," Booker said. "Coach always stresses to us that we're not playing against the other team, we're against ourselves."
Coach Cal, meanwhile, wasn't even bothering to look at the score as the No. 1 Cats raced to a 41-7 halftime advantage. He did sneak a peek or too after halftime though, which told him everything he needed to know about UK's 83-44 win over the Bruins (8-4).
"I didn't look at the score," Calipari said. "Like in the first half, I did not know what the score was. I knew it was pretty good, but I did not look -- to be honest, I couldn't find it in the arena."
UK fans, who accounted for the majority of the 19,726 fans in Chicago's United Center on Saturday afternoon, reveled in their team's 12th straight double-digit win to start the season, a school record. They cheered as the Cats smothered UCLA to the tune of 26.8-percent shooting and 0.618 points per possession. They applauded as UK hit 12 of 26 from 3-point range and exactly 50 percent from the field overall.
UCLA's Steve Alford, meanwhile, could do little but marvel at the group his friend Coach Cal has assembled.
"I don't know in my 20 years of coaching at the Division I level that I've coached against a better team than what this team looks like," Alford said. "They have everything."
Though he wasn't as quick to pump the brakes on the hype machine as he was after the last time UK demolished a fellow blue-blood program in a made-for-TV neutral-site showdown against Kansas last month, Coach Cal didn't join the chorus praising UK as a potential all-time team. Painting a masterpiece, after all, happens one brushstroke at a time.
"I'm day to day," Calipari said. "I'm in a grind and I'm staying in the moment. The one thing I'm doing is really enjoying these guys."
It isn't their dominance on the court that Calipari is enjoying so much either, at least not primarily. To him, it's all about the selflessness that's allowing it all to happen.
"We can all talk about defense and blocking shots and playing hard, but you've got 10 guys, 11 guys sharing minutes," Calipari said.
At point guard, you have Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis, who combined for 15 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds.
Aaron Harrison and Booker are splitting minutes at shooting guard, but that didn't stop them from accounting for 34 total points on eight made 3s.
Among UK's frontcourt players, no one among Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl-Anthony Towns, Dakari Johnson or Trey Lyles had eye-popping numbers, but as a group they dominated.
"I think the story is how good are these kids, and how strong are these families and how trusting they are," Calipari said. "Willie said it after the Kansas game. He came in and said, we trust the coaches, and we trust each other. That's what this is. It's a group of kids that trust."
Relying on that trust, the Cats are accepting their coach's challenge to dream. That's why they never relented even as their lead ballooned to as large as 46 points.
"As we go forward, we've got one thing, how do we continue, let's make this world class," Calipari said. "How do we become that world-class team, and it's real simple. One, you have few errors and you have no unforced errors. That's what a world-class team is about. The second thing a world-class team is about, they absolutely enjoy, even the tough times. They enjoy playing."
As much as they enjoy playing, the Cats couldn't help but look forward to a four-day break for the holidays that would follow the UCLA game. UCLA, as it turns out, was the only thing standing between the Cats and home.
"Everyone is excited," Booker said. "We're all excited to go home, and we knew we had to go through this first game and it wasn't going to be easy, but we just brought energy to the floor, and that's what put it over the top."
But after that break, it's back to business for Kentucky. Even with a trip to Louisville looming on Saturday, that means the Cats will be playing themselves more than the archrival Cardinals.
"You know, we're trying to build something here to say, you're going out, playing against yourself, and you hear these kids talking about it," Calipari said. "World-class teams play against themselves; they don't play against the opponent."