In this year's Kentucky-Louisville bout, a win is much more vital for Wildcats

jclay@herald-leader.com,JohnClayDecember 24, 2013 

Louisville FIU Basketball

Louisville's Russ Smith drove to the basket as Florida International's Dennis Mavin (22) defended. Smith led Louisville with 21 points in the Cards' 80-70 win over Kentucky last season.

LYNNE SLADKY — AP

Not to disturb your eggnog, but we have serious business to discuss.

Not to encroach on your holiday time, but we're getting close to Cats and Cards time.

That being said, this should be said about this year's edition of the state's annual hoops rendezvous featuring the last two NCAA Tournament champions: The pressure is on Kentucky.

Last time Louisville visited Rupp Arena, the series was flying toward a crossroads. John Calipari was establishing dominance. Rick Pitino was 0-2 against his former friend. Kentucky was ranked No. 3, Louisville No. 4, but the outcome that day was preparation for the continuing separation.

UK had Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague to go with holdovers Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller. Louisville had no real answer.

Kentucky won 69-62, and then repeated the feat in an all-commonwealth national semifinal, two nights before the Cats beat Kansas in New Orleans to carry those net-cutters up the ladder.

Last year, Louisville was the team with the expectations, playing at home in the KFC Yum Center with advantages in depth, experience and talent. All the Cards had to do was prove it, which they did, holding on for an 80-77 victory over Calipari's Cats.

After that, Kentucky wilted as Louisville blossomed. Caliapri lost in the first round of the NIT to Robert Morris. Pitino planted his flag atop the NCAA Mountain for a second time, heard his name called among the Hall of Fame inductees and got a commemorative tattoo.

So Captain Comeback returns to Rupp with the nation's sixth-ranked team.

It is true the 11-1 Cards have played a popcorn party of a non-conference schedule. It is also true, however, that Pitino has plenty of productive pieces remaining from his title team, such as Russ Smith, Luke Hancock, Chane Behanan, Wayne Blackshear and Montrezel Harrell. (Especially Harrell.)

If Louisville wins Saturday, the Cards will have a quality win on the home floor of a ranked team. It will have reason to believe there could be more March magic in U of L's future. If Louisville loses, it has enough veteran leadership to make you believe it could better handle a loss on the road while moving on.

Kentucky is a different story. A Kentucky loss and the Cats are 9-4 heading into SEC play. A Kentucky loss and the Cats will be 0-4 against ranked teams. A Kentucky loss and the young Cats will have lost a home game to an arch-rival that has clearly reversed the current to its liking.

There's more. A loss will confirm UK has clearly lost the in-state momentum, that the pre-season ranking was ridiculously premature, that since AD and MKG departed, the one-and-done has not been quite as much fun.

It might also mess with the psyche of a team that to this point has shown signs of frailty. Body language has become a big issue for Calipari's Cats if only for the fact that with the exception of DeMarcus Cousins, that had never been a problem for the coach's previous teams.

Players heralded as "Alpha Dogs" have yet to show those dominant traits.

Maybe the Cats can lose Saturday and still overcome the sting. By March, maybe Calipari's baby bears will have grown into Grizzlies.

Victory would sure accelerate the process, however. Victory could provide a rocket booster for a team in need of the confidence that comes from demonstrated performance.

Kentucky's win over Louisville set the Cats' path to the 2012 title just as Louisville's win over UK set the Cards down glory road in 2013.

All rivalries are cyclical, of course, even royal ones. Kentucky was on top. Now Louisville appears to have pushed a nose in front.

For Louisville, Saturday would be a nice win.

For Kentucky, it would be an important one.

John Clay: 859-231-3226. E-mail: jclay@herald-leader.com. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv.

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