INDIANAPOLIS — The most important people in the Kentucky-Louisville Sweet 16 game Friday night might not be wearing blue or red. They might be wearing black and white.
The referees loom large. A loosely called game in which, as basketball parlance terms it, they let 'em play would seem to favor Louisville. Fewer foul calls gives U of L's pressure defense sharper teeth and lessens the number of free throws resulting from Kentucky's drive-drive-drive offense.
Conversely, more foul calls tame Louisville's press and enable Kentucky to show again why it leads the nation with an average of 29.5 free-throw attempts per game.
In the NCAA Tournament, coaches and players don't learn what referees are working the game until an hour before tip-off. Not to be caught by surprise, Kentucky has worked all week preparing guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison, plus James Young for a physical game in which relatively few fouls are called.
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"We have EJ (Floreal) and Jarrod (Polson) and Dominique (Hawkins) fouling on every play," Willie Cauley-Stein said Thursday. "Like every time the twins are dribbling or James is dribbling, they're grabbing arms and jerseys. Guys are throwing their bodies at each other and grabbing at each other. That's how (Louisville) plays.
"Regardless of how the refs call it, you've got to prepare for the worst."
UK Coach John Calipari gave the reserve guards "a free rein to foul as much as we can" in practice, Polson said.
Floreal noted how UK prepared in a similar way for the regular-season games against Louisville, Michigan State and North Carolina. Calipari instructed the reserves to "wreak havoc" and "create chaos," he said.
Calipari served as referee. How often did he call a foul? "Very rarely," Floreal said.
Louisville guard Luke Hancock noted a basketball truism: It's important to adjust to the style of officiating early in the game. He suggested a tightly called game, which would adhere to the NCAA's stated intention this season of creating more scoring by reducing physical play, might help the Cardinals. At the least, it potentially would create opportunities for both teams.
"If you can't put your hands on (the offensive player), Russ Smith is going to be the hardest person in the country to guard," he said of the Cards' leading scorer. "It works both ways. And then our pressure to speed you up isn't always trapping and pushing you and stuff like that. We just want to speed the game up and wear people out."
But, generally, it's believed more fouls favor Kentucky and fewer Louisville.
"If they let Louisville press and don't call fouls, Kentucky's going to be in bad shape," said Hugh Durham, the only coach to lead two schools (Georgia and Florida State) to their only Final Four appearances. "Because they'll probably be turning it over and Louisville is going to get open-court baskets and they'll be back in the press again.
"If the referees have a happy whistle, that means, hell, it could be a lot of players on the bench for Louisville."
John Adams, national coordinator of officials, declined an interview request.
If Louisville tries to set a physical tone, it will be nothing new for Kentucky.
"It's just natural," Andrew Harrison said. "We're young. We don't have a lot of experience. The first thing (opponents) try to do is beat somebody up."
Kentucky's not exactly a 90-pound weakling. The Harrison twins and Young are all listed at 6-foot-6 and about 215 pounds. Each is a handful to contain and prevent from getting into the lane, hence UK's reliance on drive-drive-drive.
"I don't want to say it's half our offense," Cauley-Stein said, "but it's a big part of what we try to do."
Louisville is aware. "It's more a smash-mouth style of basketball," Smith said.
The so-called "new rules" make UK's drive-drive-drive even more difficult to stop. That became apparent again in last weekend's thrilling third-round victory over No. 1 seed Wichita State. Free-throw shooting may not be exciting, but Kentucky beat the Shockers thanks, in part, to 14-of-18 free-throwing in the final 11:38.
"Those new rules came into effect," Wichita State guard Ron Baker said. "They were lowering their head. They got Fred (VanVleet) in foul trouble (and) started going at him a little bit. Their goal is to get to the rim."
When asked what defenses could do to counter the drive-drive-drive, Baker said, "With the new rules, there's not a whole lot you can do. As far as the defender, the best thing to do is to get out of the way and hope for some help."
Players for both teams said they could adjust to however the referees call the game.
"If the refs don't call fouls, it'll be that much tougher," Polson said. "That's the big thing we've been talking about: toughness."
Guard Chris Jones, who is listed at 5-10 and 175 pounds, said much the same for Louisville.
"If we can play, I think we'll win," he said. "But if they call it tight, it'll be a battle."
Smith, a wise man who helped lead Louisville to last year's national championship, advised flexibility and resilience.
"I've been part of a lot of these games," he said. "There's a lot of different ways the officiating went, and it determined a lot of outcomes.
"We'll see tomorrow."