Mark Story: Maybe it's better for UK if Cats' freshmen don't fully 'get' UK-U of L rivalry?

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 23, 2013 

  • When: 4 p.m. Saturday Where: Rupp Arena Records, rankings: UK 9-3, No. 18, U of L 11-1, No. 6. TV: Channel 27

The ball had barely stopped bouncing after Kentucky's 93-80 victory over Belmont before inquiring media minds had a full-court press on the Wildcats. The question was whether the freshman-heavy UK roster understood the "magnitude" of Saturday's hoops holy war against Louisville?

Julius Randle, the Kentucky freshman star, said he gets it. "I don't think we can play in any bigger game than Louisville," he said.

Sophomore big man Willie Cauley-Stein, the rare key UK player who has participated in a prior Cats-Cards grudgefest, said he did not grasp the full fervor of UK-U of L until he was on the KFC Yum Center court last season.

"It's so serious to people," he said. "To some people, it's 'The Game,' (the) only one they really care about."

UK point guard Jarrod Polson, a senior backup for whom Saturday will be the fifth Kentucky-Louisville matchup of his college career, says he does not fret about the Wildcats having eight scholarship freshmen on their roster for this season's UK-U of L showdown.

"The (UK) freshmen, maybe they don't know Kentucky-Louisville," Polson said, "but they know big games, they've played in big games. I think they'll be ready for the challenge."

Recent history says Polson is on to something. Since John Calipari made UK basketball synonymous with one-year players, Kentucky is 4-1 head-to-head against Louisville. In those five games, Kentucky freshmen have never accounted for less than 55.8 percent of the Wildcats' total points.

When Rick Pitino and five of the top seven players from Louisville's 2013 NCAA championship team come to Rupp Arena Saturday for a 4 p.m. tip-off with the Wildcats, there are ample reasons for UK concern.

Can the Kentucky perimeter defense "stay in front" of a dynamic Louisville backcourt led by Russ Smith? Can struggling UK point guard Andrew Harrison handle Pitino's vaunted defensive pressure? Can UK, 0-3 this season against ranked foes, finally win a marquee matchup?

Yet if what has come before in the "one-and-done" era of Kentucky basketball is any guide to Saturday, what should not be a worry for Blue backers is UK's heavy reliance on first-year players against Louisville.

2009-10. Kentucky 71, Louisville 62.

After U of L took a 42-41 second-half lead, UK freshman point guard John Wall scored six straight points to re-assert Cats control. He finished with 17. Classmate DeMarcus Cousins (18 points, 18 rebounds) also played huge.

UK frosh production: First-year players accounted for 15 of Kentucky's 24 field goals, 66.2 percent of its total points and 55.3 percent (21) of its 38 rebounds.

2010-11. Kentucky 78, Louisville 63.

UK freshman point guard Brandon Knight scored 25 points and hit a clutch jumper that snuffed out a second-half U of L rally. Frosh forward Terrence Jones had 12 points, eight rebounds and five assists.

UK frosh production: First-year players accounted for 15 of Kentucky's 29 field goals and 59 percent of UK's scoring.

2011-12. Kentucky 69, Louisville 62.

Freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist carried the Cats with 24 points and 19 rebounds; his classmate Anthony Davis added 18 points, 10 rebounds and six blocked shots.

UK frosh production: First-year players produced 13 of Kentucky's 17 field goals, 72.5 percent of its total points and 59.6 percent (34) of its 57 rebounds.

2011-12. Kentucky 69, Louisville 61 (Final Four, New Orleans)

Davis hit 7-of-8 shots, scored 18 points, claimed 14 rebounds and blocked five shots to spark the Cats to victory.

UK frosh production: First-year players scored 17 of Kentucky's 28 field goals and accounted for 58 percent of its total points and 63.6 percent (21) of its 33 rebounds.

2012-13. Louisville 80, Kentucky 77.

UK freshman guard Archie Goodwin scored 17 of his 22 points in the game's final 7:24 to help Kentucky cut a 17-point deficit to two. Cats freshmen big men Nerlens Noel (eight points, eight rebounds, two blocks) and Cauley-Stein (six points, eight rebounds, three blocks) were active.

UK frosh production: First-year players accounted for 17 of 28 Kentucky field goals, 55.8 percent of UK's total points and 66.7 percent (26) of its 39 rebounds.

As for this year, Cauley-Stein noted that freshmen players from outside the commonwealth "really don't have the rivalry, don't really know about Kentucky and Louisville."

For UK in its one-and-done era, that lack of felt pressure has not been a bad thing.


When: 4 p.m. Saturday Where: Rupp Arena Records, rankings: UK 9-3, No. 18, U of L 11-1, No. 6. TV: Channel 27

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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