UK-UL is a big game for Smith's Wildcats

When Kentucky and Louisville meet on the hardwood it is always a big game. This year's game could be even bigger for the Tubby Smith's Kentucky Wildcats. Coming off of consecutive Saturday losses to North Carolina and Indiana the Wildcats need a win. Kentucky point guard Rajon Rondo doesn't downplay the importance of the game. "It's just a game we have to win," Rondo said.

Every time Kentucky plays Louisville in basketball it is going to be a huge game just because of the passion of fans in the Bluegrass. But this year the game means much, much more to Kentucky than it does Louisville.

The Cardinals have a young, rebuilding team that figures to be much better in March than it is now. Coach Rick Pitino has put together a soft non-conference schedule that keeps the Cardinals playing in Freedom Hall until January except for Saturday's game at Kentucky. So if the Cardinals lose, they won't suffer that much because going into the season, this was a game Kentucky was expected to win.

But another loss would be devastating to a Kentucky team that has not had much go right this year and took a double hit last week with the NCAA banning Randolph Morris from playing this year and Indiana embarrassing the Cats like few teams have in the last 20 years.

If the Cats lose, it will be their second home loss in 14 days -- and third straight in nationally televised games. A loss and the Cats can say farewell to the national rankings for several weeks and all but forget any chances of a relatively high seed in the NCAA Tournament.

More importantly, a loss could signal many more to come. Kansas might not be a national power this year, but if the Cats can't beat North Carolina and Louisville at home, why believe they can win at Kansas? If that happens, then the Cats would have to go 11-5 in Southeastern Conference play to finish the season 20-10. Granted, the SEC doesn't look that strong overall, but any road game could be a severe challenge for UK this season.

While a 20-10 season would still get the Cats into postseason play, think about the difficult early-round games UK would face. But if the Cats beat Louisville, the season outlook gets a lot better. Maybe a win at Kansas would be possible. Maybe a 12-4 mark -- or even better -- could still happen in league play. Maybe that 20-10 season could turn into a 23-7 year.

That's why as important as the Louisville game usually is to UK, it's even more important this year. "It's just a game we have to win," guard Rajon Rondo said. "There's no other way to put it. We have to come back, show we can be a good team and save our season. Maybe it's good we are playing Louisville because nobody wants to lose that game and it certainly is a game we can't afford to lose."


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