Neither team enters the game ranked in the Top 25 – in fact, UK is ranked No. 241 in the RPI; Louisville isn't much better at No. 105. Both teams have struggled early in the season for a variety of reasons, primarily injuries. As tip-off approaches in the Bluegrass, though, both teams finally appear healthy and nearing full strength.
The Wildcats have started out slowly under new coach Billy Gillispie this season, losing to lowly Gardner-Webb and San Diego. Despite Kentucky's .500 record and two ‘bad' losses, Louisville coach Rick Pitino knows his team will get the Wildcats best effort this afternoon.
"This is a big game – a tough game," Pitino said. "You're not going to see the same team that played against some of their other opponents. This is a bitter rivalry and you're going to see two teams that play extremely hard and want the game badly."
Louisville has lost three straight to Kentucky, including last season's 61-49 defeat at Freedom Hall. Like Kentucky, U of L (9-4, 0-1) desperately needs a win after falling to Cincinnati on Tuesday in their Big East opener 58-57.
"Yeah, it's Kentucky and it's a big game but we just need to get a win right now and I think they would say the exact same thing," Louisville center David Padgett said. "Our focus is on trying to win a basketball game."
The 6'11 Padgett made his return to the lineup against the Bearcats after missing 10 games with a fractured knee cap suffered in early November against Jackson State. Padgett played 26 minutes and had 13 points and four rebounds against Cincinnati.
"It was a little sore when I came in Wednesday but for the most part my knee felt pretty good. There was no cause for alarm or anything like that," Padgett said. "The last few days have been good."
Pitino hopes that Padgett can help jump start – beginning today – a Louisville offense that has struggled in his absence. While scoring just 57 points against Cincinnati, Louisville shot just 35 percent from the floor, including an anemic 3 for 23 from behind the arch.
"Our offense works better when David is on the floor, no question about it," Pitino said. "I expect him to play the same amount of minutes (against UK)."
If Louisville hopes to beat Kentucky for the first time in four years they'll have to do two things: Defend the three; and make shots from three-point range.
"One common denominator in all of our losses has been giving up the three-point shot," Pitino said. "In the wins we've taken away the three-point line; In the losses we haven't. UK has an excellent three-point shooting attack."
In Louisville's upset loss to Cincinnati, the Bearcats shot 57 percent (8-14) from three-point range – outscoring the Cardinals 24-6 from behind the arch. Louisville also shot the ball poorly from three-point range in losses to BYU (29 percent), Dayton (31 percent) and Purdue (23 percent).
"The Cincinnati game was really important to us and we lost it," Pitino said. "It was just one of those nights when they made the shots and we didn't."
The Wildcats are led by 6'8 freshman sensation Patrick Patterson, who leads Kentucky in scoring (17.7) and rebounding (8.2). Guards Ramel Bradley (13.8) and Jodie Meeks (11.6) and forward Joe Crawford (15.8) also average in double figures. With that type of scoring production, Pitino was hard-pressed to explain Kentucky's early season problems.
"(UK) is a very dangerous opponent because they are good inside-out," Pitino said. "If you say why did they lose to this team or that team that's the question I cannot answer by looking at them or their stats."
"I don't think anybody should let their record fool anybody," Padgett said. "They are a very good basketball team and they will be ready to play (today)."
Kentucky arguably played its best game of the season in their last outing, pounding Florida International 92-49. Patterson, Meeks and Bradley each scored 20 or more points in that win. The return of Meeks and guard Derrick Jasper to the lineup seems to have sparked the Wildcats.
"I think (UK) getting Jasper and Meeks healthy will make the game that much more exciting," Padgett said.
If the Cardinals hope to right the ship and reach their potential they'll need to start getting better play from sophomore guards Edgar Sosa and Jerry Smith. The 6'1 Sosa has struggled with his point guard duties. Most of Sosa's numbers are down from last year, including his minutes, scoring and field goal percentage. That's opened the door for junior Andre McGee, who has started nine of Louisville's 13 games.
Smith's shooting percentages are also down this season but the 6'1 guard has played better of late, leading U of L in scoring in two of the past three games. Pitino said Friday that both Sosa and Smith are "starting to turn the corner now."
"I love my guys but this feels like ten years so far," Pitino said. "It's been tough because there are so many things outside of the game of basketball that I've never dealt with in my life that I'm dealing with now."