When Louisville and Kentucky meet on Saturday afternoon, the game will have its expected intense atmosphere, with more than 22,000 in attendance at the KFC Yum! Center. There will be the usual big plays, along with questionable moments throughout the game.
However, this one also brings with it a sense of post-season play. The Cardinals and rival Wildcats, who have met in two of the last three NCAA tournaments, are a pair of top five programs that share the same goal of winning a national championship.
Following a week off, top-ranked Kentucky (12-0) enters the contest playing great ball. The Wildcats leads the nation in scoring defense (47.7), scoring margin (+29.1) and blocked shots (8.7 bpg) and has beaten four ranked opponents this season.
“I think they're a great basketball team,” said U of L head coach Rick Pitino. “One of the better defensive teams because of their length and size.
“They are a great team and we have a lot of respect for them. I'm very impressed at how humble they are in that they would dedicate themselves to being a team and not worry about minutes. They are playing great basketball and that's a tribute to their coaching staff, tribute to their players. There's no ego there, they're just playing basketball and that's one of the better teams I've witnessed in quite some time.”
After beginning the season with a flurry, fourth-ranked Louisville (11-0) has remained unscathed, but have looked a touch out of sorts in their recent outings. Due in part to the on-the-court skirmish and one-game suspension of All-American forward Montrezl Harrell, the Cardinals have not played their best ball of late.
“The last three games we've been struggling, but Saturday I think it'll be a different team out there on the court,” said senior guard Chris Jones.
For Harrell, a game of this magnitude, and the hype that comes with such a big rivalry, is an opportunity to display his leadership on and off the court. He let's the coaches explain the emotion behind the game and helps his teammates remain focused on the upcoming challenge.
“I don't really tell them to much,” Harrell explained. “That's really for our coaches to do, so I don't really tell them to much. We just know that we need to get back to the drawing board. We know that we need to prepare and be ready to play a full forty minute game on Saturday.”
When the two teams last met, a trip to the NCAA Elite Eight was on the line and the Cardinals led for much of the game, before a comeback during the final two minutes sealed a 74-69 Kentucky win. As the Cardinal began preparations for the 48th all-time meeting in the series, the message in the throughout the locker room was the need to give everything for an entire forty minutes.
“We have to play forty minutes against a team like that,” said Jones. “Last year we didn't play all forty minutes.”
The Cardinals Hall of Fame coach is fully aware of his team's recent funk, but hesitates putting much concern into it and instead remains centered on the next contest.
“I wouldn't put a whole lot of stock in this right now,” he said. “We've been thrown out of whack – why I don't know. I've watched the film and why we've been thrown out of whack like this, I don't know. We have to live with it, that's the rules of the game.”
“Everybody thinks you beat Kentucky with three-point shooting,” he said. “That's a factor – any game you want to shoot the three. They win because they control the backboard and they are an awesome defensive team.
The Cardinals have shown to be a tough defensive squad themselves, ranking among the nation's best in multiple categories. U of L ranks in the top ten in steals (4th), blocked shots (7th), field goal defense (7th), scoring margin (8th) and defensive rebounds (9th).
Louisville will need that defensive effort, coupled with an effective, team offense against the Wildcats.
“Saturday is going to be a battle, one versus four,” Jones said, referring to the teams current national rankings. “It'll be a great atmosphere and a great game. We'll find out where our pride is on Saturday night.”