John Clay: Expect few similarities to last Kentucky-Louisville match

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 27, 2014 

INDIANAPOLIS — It's a wonder why the two respective staffs even bothered to drag out their laptops, get out their notepads and cue up the video machine to even watch the replay.

After all, Kentucky versus Louisville on Dec. 28, 2013 might as well have been Kentucky versus Louisville on Dec. 28, 1913.

And if you base the scouting report for this NCAA Tournament game on that game, you're dancing the dark.

"... We're both just two different teams than we were that game," John Calipari said.

This game is the Sweet 16 game, the semifinal game of the Midwest Region, approximately 9:45 p.m. (we hope) Thursday night in Lucas Oil Stadium where No. 4 seed Louisville and No. 8 seed Kentucky meet in a head-on collision in front of 40,000-or-so people to draw one step closer to the Final Four.

It's a rivalry game and a grudge match and a showdown and whatever else you might want to call it — including a rematch. But it's a rematch in name only.

Three days after Christmas, Kentucky beat Louisville 73-66 in Rupp Arena, but that was many moons and many tweaks ago.

For instance, there is blast from the past Chane Behanan. He was the junior forward whose volume rebounding helped Louisville win the 2013 national title and whose penchant for trouble kept putting him on Pitino's suspension list.

In fact, Behanan was fresh off yet another suspension when he grabbed seven rebounds in 20 minutes at Rupp. Two days later, he was moved to Pitino's permanent vacation list.

"We had Chane back then, but we've played a long time without him now," said U of L forward Wayne Blackshear on Thursday. "We know our roles better. We know what to do."

Then there was Luke Hancock, or Luke Hancock Lite. The Most Outstanding Player in last year's Final Four was dealing with health ailments (groin/ankle) when he missed eight of 11 shots and six of eight three-pointers in Rupp.

"I feel a lot better now," Hancock said Thursday. "I watch the film myself and I don't feel like I look the same and I don't feel like I was playing the same and hopefully I can be a little more impactful in this game."

There's more. Montrezl Harrell has followed a six-point effort against UK with 11 double-doubles. Mangok Mathiang started at center for Louisville. He's now coming off the bench. Blackshear started. He's now the sixth man. Junior college transfer Chris Jones was making his ninth D-1 start.

"I was still trying to figure out what I was doing," Jones said Thursday.

It was the SEC Tournament before Kentucky appeared to figure out what it was doing. Just because the Cats triumphed in December didn't mean the Cats were a finished product.

As a topsy-turvy conference season proved, just when Calipari's club thought it had it all together, things started flying apart again. Or was that the coach flying apart?

After stumbling down the stretch, Calipari got his team to open a new door. The coach seems a kinder, gentler Calipari now, which in turn has produced better performances from his players. Or is it the other way around?

"He's calmer; I wouldn't say gentler," senior Jon Hood said. "He's calmer because we're playing better."

How are the Cats different than December? James Young said the team has more energy on defense and shares the ball better. Julius Randle said the players know their roles. Alex Poythress said he thinks the Cats are rebounding more, playing better defense, getting into the sets better.

"I think we're just a better team in general," senior guard Jarrod Polson said. "We had always had the talent, but at points in this year we weren't really a team. I think the biggest difference in that is that we've just come together and looking out for each other."

Over in the Louisville locker room, they were saying more or less the exact same thing. December it's not.

"This," Louisville's Harrell said, "will be a completely different game."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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