Cats vs. Cards: The same, yet different

Kentucky says it is better than it was when the Wildcats defeated Louisville in late December. Louisville says it is better than it was when the Cardinals lost 73-66 in that matchup at Rupp Arena. Tonight, the Bluegrass State will learn who has improved the most.

Kentucky says it is better than it was when the Wildcats defeated Louisville in late December.

Louisville says it is better than it was when the Cardinals lost 73-66 in that matchup at Rupp Arena.

As it is shaping up, the latest installment in college basketball's best rivalry may come down to who has improved the most since the new year arrived.

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"I think overall both teams are just better, and this time of year if you're playing in the Sweet 16, you've just made vast improvements in your offensive abilities and defensive abilities," said Louisville guard Russ Smith.

Added Cardinal wing Luke Hancock: "I think we were struggling to kind of find an identity at that point. And a lot of changes to our team since then. And I think it's been for the better. I think guys are kind of filling into their roles and know what they have to do to make our team better."

In many ways, Kentucky can say the same thing. The Harrison Twins are improved in the backcourt. Andrew Harrison has gone from much-maligned to a game-changer at the point. Dakari Johnson has emerged as a 7-foot presence inside. And Julius Randle, who missed most of the second half in the first game due to severe leg cramps, appears to have solved the issue that plagued him earlier in the season.

Randle scored 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting in just 21 minutes of action in the first matchup.

"I don't know if it was a mismatch or anything," said Randle, who was named an NABC All-American earlier this week by averaging a team-high 15.1 points and 10.6 rebounds per game as a freshman. "I was just kind of feeling it."

And that came with one of the undersized Cardinals' more physical players, Chane Behanan, still on the Louisville roster. He has since transferred, so Rick Pitino & Co. have had to come up with different approaches to halfcourt defense, including a lot of matchup zone of late.

Louisville's surge to the Sweet 16 has also featured the emergence of junior forward Montrezl Harrell, who had just six points and four rebounds in the first game against UK but has been a dominant force inside for the Cards the second half of the season.

"Obviously they watched that tape and they'll have an answer for (Randle)," UK coach John Calipari said. "I think their zone and their matchup zone could be an answer for it. Putting Harrell on him – they put Van Treese on him during that game – I imagine they'll put Harrell on him.

"But we're playing different, too. So the game is – we're both just two different teams than we were that game. Some of the things we did in that game, I shook my head, and I imagine (Pitino) did the same thing.


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