Cards a different team now

Kentucky has beaten Louisville three straight times, including a 69-62 decision New Year's Eve. Can the Cardinals turn the tables on the heavily favored Wildcats this time around?

Saturday's Superdome Showdown between Louisville and Kentucky in the Final Four is a rematch of a New Year's Eve slugfest between the two teams at Rupp Arena.

That game, of course, was won by Kentucky, 69-62. It's a contest that both Rick Pitino and John Calipari will study closely heading into Saturday's 6:09 p.m. national semifinal in New Orleans.

What those two coaching masterminds will discover is that Kentucky won the game for two major reasons: rebounding and foul shooting. Louisville actually made three more field goals than Kentucky and forced 21 turnovers, but the Wildcats dominated the backboard 57-31 and made five more free throws (32) than the Cardinals attempted (27).

"They were pretty darned good in December and they've been pretty consistent," Pitino said. "They've only lost two games the whole season.  They've improved certainly like you'd expect a young team to improve.  They've gotten better defensively.  Statistically, all their numbers are great…field goal differential, three-point differential, rebounding margin. They do everything very well."

Kentucky enters the game as an overwhelming favorite. It's hard to find a talking head on television who gives the Cards much of chance to win. The Wildcats have won three straight against UofL since Calipari arrived at UK in 2010. So what's different about the Cardinals this time?

"I think we're healthier," said Pitino. "Chane Behanan didn't play too long in that [first] game.  He's been an integral part of our team.  Peyton Siva is [now] healthy.  And we have matured like they have matured.

  "They killed us on the glass and that's a big concern.  They played great against Baylor.  They looked quiet scary against Baylor, who has as much talent as any team in the country."

Chane Behanan could help Louisville battle Kentucky on the boards Saturday in the Superdome.
After opening the season 12-0 and rising to #4 in the national polls, Louisville dropped back to back games to Georgetown and Kentucky in late December. Those losses sent the Cardinals into a New Year's slump, losing five of seven before ripping off six straight during the middle portion of their Big East schedule.

"I would say the differences are our team is more physically built now and we're playing at a higher level," said senior guard Chris Smith. "Everybody has their confidence and we don't have injuries on our basketball team right now."

"I think we're playing a lot better than we did then," senior forward Kyle Kuric added. "Our defense has gotten a lot better, we're playing more as a team. I think we've progressed a lot more than they have…."

One of the key moments in Louisville's early season loss at Kentucky came four minutes into the game when freshman forward Chane Behanan was whistled for his second foul. Behanan reacted poorly to the call, drawing a technical which counted as his third personal. That forced Louisville's starting power forward to the bench for the rest of the first half. He played just 15 minutes against the Wildcats.

"I feel like if I could have stayed in the game it would have pretty much been an even game," said Behanan. "I learned from my mistakes. I've watched a lot of film on it. Watching film now we look totally better, like a whole new team. Watching film when we played them in Lexington we looked like we didn't know what we were doing. We were just running around. Now as we've grown and got to know one another I think we should be pretty good."

Behanan, the West Regional MVP after leading Louisville past Michigan State and Florida, contributed just four points and five rebounds in the earlier matchup with Kentucky. Behanan combined for 32 points and 16 rebounds in two games in Phoenix last week.

Gorgui Dieng has been a major factor in UofL's post-season run to the Final Four.
"He took over the game in tough offensive situations," Pitino said of Behanan's performance against the Gators. "So he's a valuable asset to our team.  He is a terrific freshman.  He carried a big load for us.  You expect a freshman to get better as the season goes along and he has. And he's just scratching his potential.  He's going to get much better down the road like Gorgui [Dieng].  He's crucial [against Kentucky], but so is Gorgui and we've got to get Kyle Kuric playing to a higher level as well."

Chris Smith believes his younger teammate could be a potential difference maker against the heavily favored Wildcats.

"Chane kind of changes the game because there is not too many post players in the country that play on the perimeter," said Smith. "His size and strength is tremendous. It's hard to stop Chane when Chane is playing like Chane Behanan."

Smith said he's seen Behanan mature during Louisville's post-season run in the Big East and NCAA Tournament West Regional.

  "I think Chane has learned to keep his mouth shut," Smith said. "For being a young guy he shouldn't really speak out. But for Chane he's grown up and become a man in the last three or four weeks."

Another key for Louisville's chances of turning the tables against Kentucky is Kuric, the team's leading scorer. Matched up against Kentucky super freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in the first meeting, Kuric was a virtual no-show, posting just two points and two rebounds in 38 minutes.

"I think he needs to find other ways to score than the jump shot," Pitino said. "When people take away his jump shot he has to learn to move better without the basketball and grab some offensive rebounds, create some steals and get on the break and create more opportunities for himself."

Kentucky elected to stay at home on Kuric and deny him open looks on the perimeter. Kuric attempted just four shots - making one - against the Wildcats. Gilchrist, on the hand, was the difference in the game, registering 24 points and a game-high 19 rebounds.

"Whether it's running in transition or getting to the glass, I just [have to do] pretty much anything I can do to get a shot," said Kuric. "I'm not really worried about offense, we're more focused on defense. I could have been a little more aggressive [in the first game]. But I could care less if I score thirty or five I just want to win. This team is more focused on defense and how we can stop them."

Smith, who had seven points, three rebounds and three steals in the first game against Kentucky, believes the earlier experience of playing the Wildcats will prove beneficial this weekend with the stakes so high.

"I feel like it's important to play a team like that because if you can beat a team like that you know you can really contend for the national title," Smiths said. "Them on tape is night and day different than them in person. In person everybody on their team is lightning quick, they're bigger than they look on film and they're just a heck of a basketball team."

Louisville did plenty of good things in the first meeting between the two teams. For starters, the Cardinals held Kentucky to 29.8 percent shooting - 18 percent from three (3-16). Louisville also forced 21 turnovers, targeting Darius Miller, who made eight, and guards Marquis Teague and Doron Lamb, who both turned the ball over four times against the Cardinals full court pressure.

"Now that we've played them we know their ins and outs," Smith added. "We know what they're going to do. Most teams really don't change throughout the season unless they get drastically better. A couple of their guys have gotten a lot better and they have college experience.  For us we just have to do our defensive role and it will be fine."

While Louisville is a heavy underdog, Pitino's upstarts have won eight straight games heading into Saturday's showdown in the Superdome. During that stretch, Louisville avenged earlier losses to Marquette, Notre Dame and Cincinnati in the Big East Tournament, and exacted revenge against Michigan State in the regional semifinals for their 2009 upset in the Midwest Region finals. Behanan hopes Louisville continues its revenge tour in New Orleans.

"They beat us at their home and now it's neutral," Behanan said. "Everybody we played and lost to we've beaten [in the post season]. Hopefully we can continue that tradition."

To keep that streak going against Kentucky, Smith says the Cardinals must crash the boards better than they did in the first matchup.

"I would say we just have to rebound the basketball way better than we did the last time," he said. "I think we got out rebounded by 26. We have Chane and Gorgui playing well and Peyton is rebounding also. Kyle will have to include in the rebounding."

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