Kentucky takes its 12-0 record on the road Saturday against the opponent that would savor ending the Wildcats’ unblemished run and whispers of a perfect season more than any other – the Louisville Cardinals – and the UK boss knows it.
Calipari briefly tried to deliver the “next game” theme when he met with the media on Friday, but had trouble even convincing himself with an epic showdown between the No. 1 Cats and No. 4 Cards looming.
“It’s the next game for us, but it’s a great game because of how they play, how they’re coached, that they’ve got terrific talent,” the UK boss said of Saturday’s 2 p.m. ET matchup at Louisville’s Yum! Center. “… And so we’re walking into that kind of environment, we need it. We need somebody to punch us in the face. Now let’s see if we can still have fun.”
Perhaps a little word-play fun from Calipari? The Cardinals will welcome star forward Montrezl Harrell (16.7 ppg, 10.0 rpg) back to action after serving a one-game suspension for throwing a punch that led to his ejection in last week’s win over Western Kentucky.
Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s no secret that Louisville will attempt to follow the script set by previous opponents like Texas and North Carolina in taking a physical approach against perhaps the Cats. Calipari spent the holidays trying to convince his players that special teams crave that kind of challenge.
“If we’re a world-class team, you enjoy this. Even when they’re coming after you, you enjoy it,” he said.
“The physicality of the play, you have to be prepared for. To play through bumps and all those kinds of things. To rebound in traffic with bodies on you, nudging you. To be strong with the ball, (to) get open even if there are bodies on you. You’ve got to get open anyway. All those things… Teams are going to come after us.”
This isn’t your typical Louisville team, though. The Cards haven’t featured the kind of dangerous perimeter shooting one typically expects from a Rick Pitino squad. They’re shooting 44 percent from the field and only 29 percent from beyond the 3-point arc, although streaky guards Wayne Blackshear (13.7 ppg) and Terry Rozier (16.7 ppg) have each racked up 30-plus scoring efforts in the last two games.
But this UofL squad is a typically-strong Pitino defensive club – holding opponents to 34.4 percent from the field and only 54.4 points per game – and the Cards are one of the best rebounding teams in the country at 44.8 per game, led by the 6-foot-8, 240-pound Harrell in the lane.
Kentucky doesn't feature any individual player with stats like Harrell -- or even Rozier -- but counters with the deepest lineup in recent college basketball memory. The Cats' three leading scorers are sophomore guard Aaron Harrison (10.6 ppg), junior center Willie Cauley-Stein (10.5 ppg) and freshman guard Devin Booker (10.0 ppg) but they boast four others just a notch below averaging between 7.7 and 8.8 points per game in Calipari's two-platoon system.
It will be the first true road game for UK after playing the first dozen in the friendly confines of Rupp Arena or at neutral sites. The Cards are 8-0 on their home floor. Something has to give.
“Let’s play the game. Let’s see where we are,” Calipari said. “It’s winning or learning at this stage. There’s no winning and losing. Winning and learning. I know our fans will be happy to hear me say that, but that’s how I think. They should probably start, at this point in going on in my sixth year, to know that I think different.”
Calipari is 6-1 during his time at UK against Pitino, including wins in the 2012 and 2014 NCAA tournaments, ratcheting up the intensity level of the Bluegrass rivalry even higher.
“All he wants to do is win this one,” Calipari said of his coaching colleague. “I think we’re all the same. I don’t go against a coach and say, ‘How many times has he beaten me?’ I’ve been beaten plenty of times and have had some shellackings in there where you have to walk off the court and really not watch the tape. I’ve done that many times in my career. I don’t think he’s worried about it. and I’m certainly not worried about it.”