No.13 Cards have major test in No.9 Cats

No. 13 Louisville (6-1) will try to extend their two-game winning streak over No. 9 Kentucky this afternoon in Freedom Hall.

Rick Pitino doesn't usually lose games in the month of December. He also hasn't made a habit of dropping games to teams coached by his former assistants.

But this isn't a usual game this afternoon. This is No. 13 Louisville (6-1) vs. No. 9 Kentucky (6-1), one of the most fierce rivalries in all of college basketball.

Pitino, in his fourth season at U of L, owns a 25-1 record in December since taking over for Denny Crum in 2001. And for his career, he's a remarkable 20-1 against teams coached by his former assistants, including 7-1 against Tubby Smith.

While those statistics certainly bode well for Louisville, it should be noted that Smith handed Pitino that lone December loss three years ago. That being the case, Smith also is the only former Pitino assistant to knock off his mentor. Which sets the stage for today's battle at Freedom Hall.

Pitino has to be hoping that the friendly confines at Freedom Hall aren't as kind or friendly to Kentucky as they were last weekend when the Wildcats dispatched the Indiana Hoosiers 73-58. Pitino, who is 1-0 against Kentucky at home since returning to the college game, says UK has a very talented team this year.

"They are a very experienced team with very talented freshman [mixed in]," Pitino said. "The key players for them are Hayes, Azubuike and Sparks just like Dean, Garcia and Ellis are for us."

Hayes, a 6-6, 240-pound senior, averages 11.9 points and nearly 10 rebounds per contest, while Azubuike, a 6-5, 208-pound junior, leads the Wildcats in scoring at 14.4 points per game.

"That's as good a tandem as their is in the country," Pitino said of Hayes and Azubuike.

Sparks, who considered U of L after announcing his decision to transfer from Western Kentucky before signing with Kentucky, could play a pivital role today against the Cardinals. He leads the SEC in assist-to-turnover ratio and is second on the team in scoring (12.0). U of L's Larry O'Bannon, who has a four inch height advantage, will likely be assigned to defend the six-foot Sparks.

"He's a major factor and he's been a tremendous addition to their team, especially with the talent they have surrounding him," Pitino said of Sparks, who has a 3.5-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

There's no question Kentucky will try to take advantage of their size and depth in the frontcourt. While U of L's tallest players stand 6-8 (Juan Palacios and Otis George), UK boasts 6-11 Randolph Morris, 7-0 Lukasz Obrzut, and 7-3 Shagari Alleyne.

Alleyne, a sophomore from the Bronx, NY, has shown considerable progress since last season. He leads UK with 18 blocked shots and has scored in double-figures in each of the past two games. How well Myles, Palacios and George fair against Alleyne inside could go along way in determining today's winner.

"He's a major, major factor," Pitino admitted. "We have to realize that and we might have to pull up [to avoid his shot blocking ability]."

Pitino also expects Kentucky to try to pound the ball inside against his smaller front line.

"I think every team should go inside against us, it's the obvious thing," Pitino said. "They go inside against everybody and that's their style. I'm sure they're going to do that against us."

Pitino says Kentucky presents more challenges to his squad than they have in the past, mainly because of their imposing physical size combined with his own thin bench. He also expects Kentucky to try and slow the game's tempo to utilize their strength's in the half-court.

"We can play at either pace," Pitino said. "They're a very good running team, too. This is the most talented Kentucky team we will have faced [since I've been at Louisville]. They present more challenges [for us] than they did last year."

To counter Kentucky's advantage up front, the Cardinals will need another outstanding shooting performance from their perimeter marksmen. Louisville is shooting nearly 39-percent from behind the arch this season and make almost ten three-pointers per contest. To continue their strong shooting, Pitino says his team must play smart and take good shots.

"Our three point shooting is important every game, but we've got to take good shots," said Pitino. "They make you pay for taking bad shots. They're very quick changing ends."

On defense, Pitino says the Wildcats will present a major challenge for his team, an aspect that Pitino has repeatedly critized his team for during the seasons first month.

"This is a very tough matchup for our defense because they have more answers than they've ever had," Pitino said.

On the plus side for U of L, Pitino says that Ellis Myles, who has been plaqued with turnover problems so far this season, believes his senior leader could be ready to turn in his best performance to date. "He's looked very good in practice this week," Pitino said.

Pitino will also have the services of reserve forward Otis George. George, who scored 13 points and grabbed 8 rebounds last year against UK, was a key reason why U of L won last season. He's missed the Cardinals past three games but his return today should give his team a major boost.

"He improves our defense and rebounding, especially on the offensive [boards]," Pitino said. "He's maybe the best shot blocker we have and he really makes our defense go."

Myles, who was forced to watch from the sidelines last season as the Cardinals knocked off UK 65-56, said he's looking forward to this afternoon's clash.

"It's going to be a big test," said Myles, who believes this game will be a battle between his teams speed versuses Kentucky's size. "We're excited to have Otis back and I think we had two of our best practices of the year yesterday."

Tip-off: 12:01 EST; TV: ESPN; Radio: 84 WHAS; Series History: U of L trails 12-23; Spread: U of L -3; Next Game: Dec. 21 vs. IUPUI, 7:08 PM.

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