Unless Rick Pitino pulls a major surprise, the Cards will try to use their superior depth to run, press, shoot threes, and try to draw fouls to get into UK's shaky bench as quickly as possible. And unless Tubby Smith pulls a major surprise, the Cats will try to use their superior experience and mental toughness to slowly, but surely, break the Cards' spirit and will.
But don't expect any surprises. The winner will be the team that best excutes the style that has worked for it so far.
At this point in the season, unbeaten UK definitely deserves its No. 1 ranking despite a schedule that is deceptive. The Cats have defeated three marquee-name teams (UCLA, Michigan State, and Indiana) that so far haven't lived up to their traditions or expectations. But they also have played those three, plus Marshall, at neutral sites, meaning that Smith probably was smart to schedule Tuesday's game against Eastern Kentucky, if only to get the Cats reacquained with Rupp.
On the other hand, U of L's most impressive wins have come against Billy Donovan's over-rated Florida Gators and Seton Hall. But the Cards also haven't played a true road game. Both their overtime loss to Iowa and their rout of Western Kentucky came at neutral sites.
Take it to the bank: Rupp Arena will be a true road game.
Both teams play outstanding half-court defense, sometimes mixing some zone with their standard man-to-man. The Cards switch and gamble more, resulting in more transition hoops than the Cats usually get. But don't get the idea that the Cats can't run. Cliff Hawkins is one of the nation's best point guards, and UK's inside players do a good job of running the floor.
The Cards are still a work in progress, meaning that most of the pressure will be on UK. But the Cats seem to relish pressure intstead of shirking from it. They haven't lost a regular-season game since last year's wake-up call against U of L. Since last season's upset loss to Marquette in the regional finals, the upperclassmen have talked repeatedly about having some "unfinished business" to complete.
Part of that business, of course, is making up for last season's meltdown against the Cards.
It's difficult to assess individual matchups because U of L uses some many combinations in which the players become almost interchangeable. Sophomore Francisco Garcia, for example, can play any of five positions.
At point guard, UK's Hawkins is a better penetrator and floor leader than U of L's Taquan Dean, but he's not nearly as much of a threat with his outside shot.
At center, the Cards will try to neutralize UK's Erik Daniels with a committee consisting of Kendall Dartez, Otis George, and Nouha Diakite. Don't look for Lukasz Obruzut, UK's ponderous 7-footer, to get much playing time.
At the forwards, UK's Chuck Hayes and Kelenna Azubuike, backed by Antwain Barbour, will be matched against U of L's Luke Whitehead and Garcia. Hayes and Daniel are like heavyweight fighters who get inside their opponent's defenses and pound away at the body. But Whitehead is as touch as Hayes, and more versatitle, and Garcia will test the Cats on both ends of the floor.
Fitch leads Cats on
The Cards have a decided edge in depth. After Barbour, the Cats don't have anybody they can really depend on. Either Brandon Stockton, Josh Carrier, Bernard Cote were recruiting mistakes, or else Smith hasn't done as good a job of bring them along as Pitino has with Mohammed, George, and Daniels.
Only the most unreasonable UK fans would be shocked if U of L were to win, but that's probably not going to happen. The Cats are "sneaky good," meaning that despite not having much size, depth, or All-American-caliber talent, they played extraordinarily well together and they're tough enough to find a way to win under any circumstances, against any style.
Make it UK 75, U of L 67.
Nobody Asked Me But....
Just as Louisville-Kentucky always should be the opening game of the college football season for both teams, so should the U of L-UK basketball rivalry always be renewed between Christmas and New Year's. It almost gives the commonwealth a third statewide holiday.
But there's a way to make it even better.
Pitino has friends and admirers both in Louisville and Lexington. A lot of these also knew Billy Minardi, Pitino's brother-in-law and best friend, who was killed in the World Trade Center holocaust on 9/11/01.
So why not make the Minardi Classic a four-team event that would alternate between Rupp Arena and Freedom Hall?
Every year U of L and UK, as the host teams, would play teams that have connections to Minardi, Pitino, or Tubby Smith. Maybe one year it would be UK vs. Marshall (coached by former Smith assistant Ron Jirsma) and U of L vs. Murray State (coached by ex-Pitino aide Mick Cronin).
The winners would play two nights later. There also would be a consolation game. This also would enable all four teams to get a taste of the NCAA tournament format.
The night between the games could be used for big party or dinner to which the public could buy tickets. Maybe it could even be a hoops bazaar where fans could shop for books, memoribilia, and wearing apparel. Ex-U of L and UK stars would be present to sign autographs.
It would be a three-day celebration of all that's good about basketball in our state.