An NIT team under former coach Billy Gillespie last season, Kentucky is off to their best start since the 1977-78 season. The Wildcats have won their first 14 games under Calipari with the emergence of freshmen sensations John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins.
Wall might be the best player in college basketball, not just the top freshman. The 6'4 guard is averaging 17.2 points and 4.0 rebounds and handed out 16 assists, a UK record, in a 104-61 win over Hartford on Tuesday.
The 6'11 Cousins, along with 6'8 junior forward Patrick Patterson have combined to give Kentucky one of the top frontcourt duo's in the country. The two combine to average more than 31 points and 15 rebounds per game, while Patterson is shooting 62.5 percent from the floor. With Cousins and Patterson leading the way inside, the Wildcats rank third nationally in rebounding margin (12.4) and fifth in blocked shots at 7.6 per game.
"It is a big problem," Pitino said of Kentucky's inside strength. "They have some special [big guys] and they play well together. They have Patrick Patterson, who I have always loved."
One of Louisville's biggest concerns could be holding their own on the boards against the bigger, more athletic Wildcats. The Cardinals have struggled at times this season with their rebounding, though they've shown signs of improvement during their current five game winning streak.
If Louisville doesn't grab some offensive boards, Kentucky has proven this season they're one of the nation's top transition teams off the defensive board. With Wall leading the break, the Wildcats are a dangerous transition team. Pitino has probably been burning the midnight oil this week trying to devise ways to slow down Kentucky's transition game.
"They are the best transition team I have seen in a long, long time," Pitino said. "Their runs are incredible. I was charting them on film and on their transitions they [converted] 75-80 percent and you don't see that very often. They can really finish.
"Their big [men] run well, run really well," Pitino said. "They get up and down the floor and they are unselfish and play together. We gotta watch what we do if because if you take a bad shot they really make you pay. Shot selection is really key."
The Cardinals have won the past two games in the series, including last year's thriller won on Edgar Sosa's three-point dagger in the waning seconds at Freedom Hall. With the Rupp Arena crowd in their corner, Kentucky has their sights set on revenge – and their first victory in the series since Tubby Smith roamed the sidelines for the Wildcats.
Louisville will enter hostile Rupp Arena a clear underdog. The Cardinals, 10-3, struggled early this season but have won five straight games since back-to-back losses to Charlotte and Western Carolina early last month. Louisville has clearly made improvement the past few weeks. Is it enough to upset the Wildcats?
"We are taking baby steps and I don't think we are anywhere near where we think we should be," said Pitino. "We are improving. We are getting better."
Pitino continues to focus his attention on improving his team's rebounding and defense. Those two areas were major reasons for losses to UNLV, Charlotte and Western Carolina. During their five game winning streak, however, Louisville has made significant strides in both areas.
In their last five games, all double-digit wins, Louisville has out-rebounded their opponents by 11.2 per contest. The Cardinals have also forced 20.5 turnovers during their five-game win streak and are averaging 27.6 points off turnovers. In addition to increased pressure, UofL has also tightened it's perimeter defense, limiting their past two foes to a combined 4 of 21 shooting from three-point line.
"I would like to see consistency on the backboards and consistency on guarding off the bounce," said Pitino. "We are making improvements and it's much better than it was two weeks ago."
Since opening Big East action with a 73-52 win over South Florida Wednesday night, the Cardinals have been focused on Kentucky.
"We do a lot of film work," Pitino said. "We have seen them a lot and we know how great they are and we know their abilities. They are not [only one of] the tallest teams but they are the fastest team and the most athletic team I have ever seen at Kentucky. So we know what we are up against and it won't be surprising to us. We will work on a game plan to try to limit some of that athleticism. It's not easy to do. No one has been able to do it and that is why they are undefeated."
Though Louisville is just 5-14 against Kentucky in Lexington, the Cardinals did win at Rupp Arena two years ago. Pitino hopes his team's experience in the back court with Edgar Sosa, Jerry Smith and Preston Knowles provides an edge.
"They (the players) know it is a great atmosphere," Pitino said. "I coached there and it picks up when the players are great. Just watching the North Carolina game you could hear everything. We know that. We have Edgar and we have an experienced back court and that will help us."
NOTE: Freshman reserve Peyton Siva might not play against Kentucky Saturday because of a stomach virus.
"Peyton Siva is doubtful for this game," Pitino said Friday. "He has missed three practices with the stomach flu. We think he'll make the trip but I don't know if he'll play in this game."
GAME FACTS - Louisville (10-3) vs. Kentucky (14-0)
Date: Saturday, Jan. 2
Time: 3:37 p.m. ET
Site: Rupp Arena (23,000), Lexington, Ky.
TV: CBS will televise the game with Verne Lundquist (play-by-play) and Clark Kellogg (analyst)
Radio: WKRD (790 AM, 101.7 FM) with Paul Rogers (play-by-play) and Bob Valvano (analyst) SIRIUS: SIRIUS Satellite Radio Ch. 123 (XM Channel 144)
Series History: U of L trails 26-14 all-time (6-11 in Louisville, 6-13 in Lexington, 2-2 neutral)
Next U of L Game: Jan. 6 at Providence, 7:00 p.m. ET (ESPNU)