Finally, the game everyone in the Commonwealth has been anticipating is next. There are no more cupcakes on the schedule. It's time for the main course. Of course, we're talking about Louisville vs. Kentucky; Rick Pitino vs. John Calipari.
More than 22,000 fans will pack the KFC Yum! Center Friday at high noon to see No. 20 Louisville and No. 11 Kentucky take the court seeking Bluegrass glory and bragging rights.
There is no love lost between these two, old heated rivals. Not after last year's slugfest in Rupp Arena that featured 51 personal fouls, five technicals and the now infamous ‘choke job' by former Kentucky center DeMarcus Cousins.
Though Cousins now plays in the NBA, don't expect the intensity-level to diminish Friday. Rick Pitino wants nothing more than to ring in the new year with a big win over John Calipari's Wildcats. Ditto for Calipari.
Louisville looks ready for Kentucky. The Cardinals, 11-1, shot lights out in their last two games – a 114-82 win at Western Kentucky, and a 104-74 victory over Morgan State Monday night.
Here's what has to give Calipari nightmares heading into Friday's game: 64 percent – that's what Louisville shot against WKU. 59 percent. That's what the Cards shot against Morgan State. 33 three-pointers. That's how many three's Louisville made in their last two games, including a remarkable 73 percent in their final tune up against the Bears.
"We understand it's going to be a hard game for us," Calipari admits. "We've got a tough challenge. Are we up for it? I don't know. We're going to find out, though, because it will be a war. And it's on the road and it's a ranked opponent."
Which team has the edge? It's hard to pick against Louisville given their balance, depth, recent play and homecourt advantage.
Pitino has his team firing on all cylinders. The Cards are playing great team basketball. They're passing the basketball extremely well, evidenced by 50 assists in their last two outings. And their shooting has been off the charts. Louisville plays hard, they play fast, and they're playing well.
But Kentucky figures to be UofL's toughest test to date. Most figured Butler would be a tough game, too. Louisville won by 15. Many thought UNLV could upend the Cardinals at home. Louisville won by 8. Louisville hopes to make another statement against Kentucky before heading into the Big East.
"The old basketball cliché says that shooting cures a multitude of sins," Pitino said. "I haven't seen shooting like the last two games in a while. The shooting in the last two games was spectacular because the passing and the unselfishness was very good."
Pitino expects his team will have to execute better against Kentucky's defensive pressure if they hope to get as many open shots as they did against Western Kentucky and Morgan State.
"We are not going to get the looks that we have been getting the next game, obviously, so we have to do a better job in executing," Pitino said. "A top-10 team is not going to give you those looks. So, you have to work hard and execute.
"But I am not worried about the offense. I know they are a terrific defensive team. I am worried about our defense, especially transition-wise."
Flatly, Pitino said his team's defense against Morgan State, "sucked." Coach-speak? Though Louisville did have a whopping 47 deflections and 14 steals, the Bears shot a good percentage from the field, including 50 percent from the three-point arch.
"We got beat off the bounce, we didn't trap the post when we were supposed to, we didn't close out well enough, we didn't trap up on the baseline when we were supposed to, and we didn't talk in transition," Pitino stated.
Pitino knows defense is the key against Calipari's young guns. Knight and Lamb both can score from the perimeter, while Jones provides inside punch. Look for Louisville to pressure Kentucky's freshmen guards, limit open three-point looks, and force Jones' away from his left hand.
"They are a much different team than last year," Pitino said. "They are just as fast as they were last year in terms of pushing the pace. They shoot it great, which they didn't last year. They take you off the bounce very well and are a very good defensive team."
Perhaps the big question is how Calipari will try to slow down Louisville's high-octane attack. Typically a man-to-man defensive team, Calipari ‘experimented' with a zone defense and box and one against Coppin State. Might Calipari pull a page from former assistant Bruiser Flint's Drexel playbook?
"What did it [zone] do to the game?" Calipari asked. "[It] slowed it down. They had to pass. They almost had shot clock violations…… And what I told my staff….we have a game coming up Friday (vs. Louisville). Maybe we want the game to be slower, do what Drexel did. So maybe we play zone. But we'll see."
Though Louisville wants to play fast to utilize their depth advantage, you have to think the Cardinals are licking their chops at the thought of seeing a zone from Kentucky given their recent hot shooting.