NEW ORLEANS — Much has changed since Kentucky beat Louisville 69-62 on New Year's Eve in Lexington.
Saturday, the rivals will meet on a much bigger stage — the NCAA Final Four in New Orleans.
Has Kentucky improved since the first clash?
"Well, they were pretty darn good in December and they've been pretty consistent — they've only lost two games all season," U of L Coach Rick Pitino said during his Tuesday news conference. "They've improved, certainly, like you would expect a young team to improve. They've gotten better.
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"Statistically, all their numbers are great. I know their field-goal differential, three-point differential, rebounding margin — they do everything well."
As for his Cardinals, "I think we're healthier. I think, certainly, Chane Behanan didn't play too well in that game, and he's been an integral part of our team. I think Peyton Siva's healthy. And, then, we've matured like they have matured."
Kyle Kuric, U of L's 6-foot-4 senior at small forward, says the Cardinals have an upper hand on margin of improvement since December.
"They're a great team," Kuric said, "but I think we're playing a lot better than we did. Our defense has gotten a lot better. We're playing more as a team.
"I think we've progressed a lot more than they have. But they really didn't have very much to progress on."
Teammate Chris Smith also cited U of L's improved health.
He said the Cards are "playing at a higher level and everybody has their confidence."
One thing that will have to change from December if U of L is to win, the Cards agree, is control of the backboards.
In December, UK outrebounded U of L 57-31, including a 20-10 advantage on the offensive end. The Wildcats' Michael Kidd-Gilchrist grabbed 19 rebounds and Terrence Jones had 11. Anthony Davis totaled 10 boards and six blocks. The best a Cardinal could do was five rebounds — by Behanan, Gorgui Dieng and Russ Smith. Dieng also blocked six shots.
"They killed us on the glass," Pitino said. "And that's a big concern because of the way they've played in the tournament. ... They played great against Baylor. Quite scary against Baylor, actually, who has as much talent as any team in the country."
Baylor narrowly outrebounded the Cats, 34-32.
Better in person
Chris Smith has seen plenty of film on UK, but going face-to-face is altogether different.
"I would say them on tape is like a night-and-day difference from in person," Smith said. "In person, everybody on their team is pretty lightning quick. They're bigger than what they look like on film. And they're just a heck of a basketball team, really."
Smith says U of L will benefit from lessons learned in December.
"Now that we've played them, we kind of know the ins and outs of what they're going to do," he said. "Most teams really don't change throughout the season unless they get drastically better. For them, a couple of guys have gotten a lot better — they've got college experience now."
Smith said that if U of L rebounds better and focuses on defense, "we'll be fine."
Dome sweet dome
Pitino on what's different in playing in a dome environment: "The depth perception. ... Everything's different. But the good thing for us is we played at Syracuse, so we understand what a dome is. Like the noise level. A great play will happen and it's almost like a three-second delay — it goes through the crowd and then you hear it. You don't hear it right away, like in an arena."
Chris Smith on Louisville once again being an underdog: "Things don't change. People are still picking against us. But, for us, that's motivation. We're just going to keep our heads high, keep it going and try to keep rolling."
Smith said he recently had a dream about the game. "I just remember us battling and it going down to the wire," he said. "That's all I really remember. Then I woke up. Sweating."
Chris Smith, asked when he realized the intensity of the rivalry, recalled the game two seasons ago: "I would say that the first time I'd seen it was when (UK's) DeMarcus Cousins elbowed (Jared) Swopshire in the face and took his face off."
Pitino, on U of L fans being on an island surrounded by UK fans: "They (UK) have as many fans in our city, and it ends up in a lot of bad marriages; a lot of mixed marriages that end up bad. You have a Louisville woman with a Kentucky man and it always ends bad."