Cats expect Cards to bare their claws

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 30, 2012 

  • Kentucky vs. Louisville

    When: 6:09 p.m. Saturday | Where: The Superdome in New Orleans | TV: CBS-27 | Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

    Records: Kentucky 36-2, Louisville 30-9 | Series: Kentucky leads 29-14 | Last meeting: Kentucky won 69-62 on Dec. 31, 2011, in Rupp Arena

NEW ORLEANS — It's difficult to adequately describe how a Louisville victory over Kentucky in the Final Four on Saturday would nauseate the Bluegrass State. But U of L guard Chris Smith managed nicely.

"It would be like the Derby on crack," he said Friday.

As if meeting national championship expectations wasn't difficult enough, Kentucky must now beat its arch-rival. The Big Easy plays host to the big uneasy.

"Get a great night's sleep," UK Coach John Calipari told the fans who attended the Wildcats' public workout Friday. "All this crazy anxiety, relax!"

Unwittingly or not, U of L Coach Rick Pitino stoked the apprehension, at least among UK fans, by noting how a coach may need to feel his or her way through the fog of Final Four pressure.

"I think you never know, when the ball is thrown up in the Final Four, who is going to handle and overcome the nervousness of playing in a Final Four and who's going to be totally focused in and not bothered by it," he said. "There are some players I've coached in the past I thought would be really cool and calm, and they weren't. And others I thought wouldn't be (who) were. You really can't tell by their demeanor before the game or how they act."

Kentucky players looked calm, even carefree, on Friday. During a playful three-point shooting contest in the public on-court appearance in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the players smiled and joked. One onlooker could be heard asking, "Are they always so loose?"

Always, Doron Lamb suggested afterward. "We've had pressure on us since the summertime," he said.

Earlier in the week, Pitino shied from the suggestion that his team's surprise run to the Final Four removed any burden of expectation. On Friday, he refused the label of underdog.

"I really haven't used it," he said, "mainly because I want my team to have confidence that they can play with Kentucky. I think, at this level, if you take the underdog mentality, then I think they feel they don't belong, and it works against you."

Pitino acknowledged that confidence against Kentucky can be difficult to muster.

"It's easy to feel inferior to Kentucky," he said. "Because they go on the (NBA) draft board all the time. You see the one-pick in the draft (and) two-pick in the draft. You won't want that feeling going into it because you'll play like inferior players."

Louisville hopes to stand toe to toe — and chin to chin, chest to chest and, if necessary, elbow to ribs — with Kentucky.

Calipari has spoken about Louisville's clawing, scratching, biting, holding, gouging on defense.

"I'm not sure how much gouging we do," U of L forward Kyle Kuric said. Presumably, that was a no-comment on the clawing, scratching, etc., etc.

"We don't want to give up layups or lobs," he said. "There's always got to be a body on someone."

Kuric noted how U of L must limit Kentucky's fast-break and free-throw opportunities. In UK's 69-62 regular-season victory on Dec. 31, it made 32 of 43 free throws.

"Keeping them off the foul line will be a big key for us," Kuric said.

Pitino scoffed at Calipari's suggestion of the Cardinals playing full-contact defense.

"He's done that since the UMass days when he spoke about us in '96 in Kentucky," Pitino said. "He thinks the referees read the newspapers. He thinks the referees stay up at night and listen to Coach Cal's comments. They really don't."

Calipari has acknowledged that Louisville's defense can take a toll on an opponent.

"It rattles some cages," the UK coach said on Monday. "They pressed us (in Rupp Arena) and it rattled us. I mean, we were not ready for that. ..."

In practices this week, the Cats have prepared for a bumping, pushing, physical game.

"We worked on playing through the hits and being extra physical with each other," walk-on Sam Malone said. "Coach Cal said don't take it to the refs."

During practices, the UK coaches encouraged backups Jarrod Polson and Twany Beckham to play aggressively against starters Marquis Teague and Lamb. When the starters grew irritated, Malone noted how Calipari advised, "Don't get mad. Play through it. You want those hits."

Freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who set career highs of 24 points and 19 rebounds against Louisville in December, shrugged at the idea of a physical rematch.

"It's a Big East team," he said of U of L, "so ..."

Calipari suggested that Teague would welcome a grinding contest, which the player confirmed.

"That's fine," he said. "I like to play physical. That's OK."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog:

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