The big game is (almost) here

12 hours before one ball goes down, another ball will go up.

Tipoff for UK’s game against Louisville is noon on New Year’s Eve, sneaking into the last few hours of the calendar year. To think, UK almost went all of 2010 without playing Louisville in a game of basketball.

And now that the time is actually here, the game has saturated the atmosphere around the team.

“In my opinion, it’s one of the best rivalries in the NCAA,” said junior guard Darius Miller, a native of Maysville, Ky. “It means a lot to me, because I’m from here and I know what it means to the program.”

Some of the Cats do realize the inherent nature of the biggest rivalry game on either team’s schedule. Others – in particular, the new freshman who weren’t born into the rivalry and haven’t been exposed to it yet – seemed not entirely sure what to make of it.

Freshmen Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb have both said they didn’t really follow UK before their senior years of high school. But still, they do realize what the game means. Lamb said last week all he knew was that the two teams “hated each other,” a sentiment Knight has picked up, as well.

“We know that our fans really don’t like this team, but our job is to come out and play and try to get a win,” Knight said. “I don’t think the fans are going to have an effect on our attitudes coming into the game.”

Trying to convey the importance of the game isn’t easy to do for the new Cats.

“It’s kind of hard to talk about (with the freshmen),” Miller said. “It has to be something you have to be ready for and experience.”

Last year, that experience for the freshmen led to chippy play. Eric Bledsoe got into a confrontation with Reginald Delk, and DeMarcus Cousins had the maybe/possibly inadvertent elbow to Jared Swopshire’s face.

“I wasn’t expecting last year to be like that,” Miller said. “I don’t think it will be quite like last year. At least the beginning of last year.”

UK head coach John Calipari, entering the second year of the rivalry game, wants a clean game.

“I just don’t want it to get dirty,” Calipari said. “Doesn’t need to get dirty. Doesn’t need to be amped up any more than it is, which are two good teams playing each other.”

The Cats are focusing on avoiding a slow start that could whip the Louisville crowd in a frenzy if the home team gets an early lead. Playing against North Carolina on their home court earlier this year let UK see what a hostile environment looked, and sounded, like.

“We know that the only guys for you are the guys that are with you,” Knight said.

While fans and media have been hyping it up, Calipari noted the exaggerated nature of the game – it is, after all, only one game to count toward standings. That attitude has been reflected in the team’s preparation, which didn’t start until Tuesday night after UK beat Coppin State.

“Now, we haven’t talked about them,” Calipari said. “We haven’t watched tape, haven’t prepared, haven’t done anything. … I don’t want them to think one game is more important than any other. They’re not. They’re all important.”

If anything, Calipari thinks it’s most important because it’s a test for his still-young squad. Louisville is ranked ____ and is playing the rivalry game for the first time in their new arena, the KFC Yum! Center.

“We’ve got a tough challenge,” Calipari said. “Are we up for it? I don’t know. We’re going to find out, though, because it will be a war. And it’s on the road and it’s a ranked opponent.”