By Tom Hurley | @TomHurleyKernel
It may be December, not March. It may be non-conference. It may be experience against youth. It may be what UK head coach John Calipari calls “a well-oiled machine” against “a work in progress.” But, make no mistake about it, this one really matters.
Calipari leads UK into enemy territory Saturday when his Cats (8-3) take on No. 3/4 Louisville (11-1) at the KFC Yum! Center, in a rematch of last season’s National Championship semi-final.
“This is a great challenge for us,” Calipari said Friday. “You’re talking about a team that should be, or is, odds on favorites to win the whole thing.”
Since that 69-61 victory for UK over the Cardinals at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, La., the Cats have seen six players depart for the NBA.
Louisville, however, has not only retained the key players in their lineup, but added to it.
“A final four team, with everybody returning, a healthy (Wayne) Blackshear, a (Montrezi) Harrell added to the team…That just took them another notch,” Calipari said. “We’re at a disadvantage.”
While Calipari’s young side have struggled to reach the high level of play seen by those wearing the blue and white in New Orleans, the Cardinals have thrived.
Junior guard Russ Smith leads Louisville in scoring, averaging 19.1 points a game, and senior guard Peyton Siva has twice as many assists as any other Cardinal, averaging 6.25 dimes per game.
Siva has been more than a nuisance for defenders this season, helping his team get to the free throw line as well as creating scoring opportunities for both himself and his teammates.
Calipari is weary of Siva’s play causing his squad to run into early foul trouble.
“If he’s drawing fouls or creating fouls on passes that you have to help, you’ve got a problem,” Calipari said. “He’s good at that.”
Riding a six-game win streak heading into Saturday’s contest, Louisville’s only defeat on the season thus far came in a tight 76-71 loss against then No.5 Duke on Nov. 24.
UK’s freshman center Nerlens Noel says he “couldn’t care less” that his side is deemed as under dogs.
“It’s a game of basketball,” he said. “When that ball goes up it’s two teams playing for the W.”
The Cardinals have forced opponents into an average of 21.4 turnovers over its 12 games so far in 2012/13 and the Cats are more than aware that keeping possession when bringing the ball up court will be no easy task Saturday.
“Louisville is probably the best pressing team in the nation,” said junior guard Jarrod Polson. “We know it’s going to be difficult, but we think if we can run our game plan and run our press attack that we’ll be successful.”
35 percent of points scored by Louisville this season have come from turnovers.
Rebounding has also been key in creating scoring opportunities for the Cards, with sophomore forward Chane Behanan averaging 7.6 boards a game.
The news this week that Louisville’s junior center Gorgui Dieng will be ready to play Saturday for the first time since fracturing his wrist on Nov. 23 makes UK’s job tougher when it comes to controlling the glass.
Dieng was averaging eight rebounds through five games before getting hurt.
Much has been made in the run-up to the game that Dieng’s parents will be travelling from Senegal to see their son play college basketball for the first time.
Expect the momentum switch to lean in the home side’s favor when Dieng enters the game for his emotional return from injury, whatever the score may be at that point.
Polson is one of few players who have experienced the inter-state rivalry game before, and he’s made sure his freshman teammates know how much this matchup means to UK fans.
“They’re not from here, but they know what’s at stake,” he said.
Freshman guard Archie Goodwin, who’s been getting more minutes in his more accustomed position of shooting guard thanks to the improved play of sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow, is one of those fresh-faced Cats who’s been learning about the rivalry.
“It’s gonna be a war,” he said. We’re gonna have to come out and play our hardest and hope that we get the win.”
UK will be without the services of junior guard Jon Hood Saturday, who continues his absence from the team due to illness.
Win or lose Saturday, Calipari is hoping his young team continue to climb the steep learning curve its been on this season.
“This team is a work in progress,” he said. “I’m pleased that we’re getting better. I don’t know what that means when you start playing some more games and teams like (Louisville), but I do know that we’re getting better and we’re pleased with that.”
Tipoff at Yum! Center is scheduled for 4 p.m. Kernel reporters Les Johns and David Schuh will be providing live updates from Louisville via twitter.