Hopefully, Julius Randle is not claustrophobic. Because on Saturday he might find expansive Rupp Arena as crowded as the return desk the day after Christmas.
As Kentucky's leading scorer and low-post presence, Randle figures to be the primary focus of Louisville's defense. Kenny Walker, who battled a thicket of defenders as a UK All-American three decades ago, expects the Cardinals to get similarly thorny with Randle.
"The ultimate respect," Walker called it. "They may treat Randle like he's Hakeem Olajuwon or Dwight Howard or Tim Duncan or Patrick Ewing."
To not double- or triple-team those kind of players is to invite defeat.
"Too crafty, too good, too big, too strong," Walker said of Randle. "He'll get your team in foul trouble."
The mentioning of Duncan should evoke vivid memories for UK fans of a certain age. Duncan posed the biggest threat, literally and figuratively, to Kentucky's hopes of winning the 1996 NCAA Tournament. In the 1996 Midwest Region finals, then-UK Coach Rick Pitino (the guy wearing the red tie on Saturday) ordered special defensive attention on Duncan. The double-teaming worked remarkably well. Duncan took only three first-half shots and made none. The Cats rolled to a 19-point halftime lead and crushed Wake Forest 83-63. UK advanced to the Final Four and won its sixth national championship.
Dave Odom, who coached Wake Forest, recalled two primary factors in Kentucky's victory that day in Minneapolis: 1. Wake played without point guard Tony Rutland, a 1,000-point career scorer who tore an anterior cruciate ligament in the ACC Tournament earlier that month; and, 2. how effectively Walter McCarty and Antoine Walker reduced Duncan to irrelevance.
"First time in all my coaching days I'd ever seen a team post-to-post double, that is to say double with two post men," Odom recalled this week.
Duncan, who's gone on to one of the more decorated NBA careers, made only two of seven shots. Seldom have 14 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks seemed so ... ordinary.
"They had him completely boxed in," Odom said. "All he could do was throw the ball back out to the guy who threw it to him. We kept doing that over and over again. And we got nowhere.
"Really a terrific ploy, a terrific plan on Rick's part."
Usually, teams intent on double-teaming a low-post scorer would use a perimeter player as the second defender. Looking back, Odom saluted McCarty and Walker for bodying Duncan to the baseline.
"Not only were they big, tall and long, but they were fast," Odom said. "They were fast to double. They went on the pass. They were there on the catch."
With Duncan marginalized, his teammates looked lost.
"It not only demoralized them, but diminished their ability to play the kind of game they had been taught to play," Odom said. "Shooters didn't have the shots they normally did. Ball-handlers didn't have people open to pass to."
Seventeen years later, teams are better able to handle double-teams, Odom said. "People throw alley-oops more. You play over defenses instead of around defenses."
That's not to say Randle and Kentucky won't have to sweat should Pitino reprise the strategy on Saturday.
Randle is not Duncan. Not yet, anyway. "I don't think John (Calipari) depends on him as much as we depended on Tim," Odom said. "But if he stayed more than one year, he might grow into that, for sure."
Randle, who leads Kentucky with averages of 18.2 points and 11.3 rebounds, has plenty of experience dealing with traps on the low post. Scott Pospichal, who coached Randle on the AAU team called the Texas Titans, said it's been that way "since the fifth grade." That covers more than 500 games, he said.
When asked if the allure of Kentucky involved the likelihood of talented teammates who could prevent double- and triple-teams, Pospichal said, "There's a lot to that. I'd think that makes a lot of sense."
Of course, it hasn't worked out that way. Since Randle scored 23 points and grabbed nine rebounds in the second half against Michigan State, opposing defenses have made containing him Job One.
While Calipari publicly laments how opponents hack Randle, the player doesn't help sell that suggestion to the referees with out-sized winces and grunts. He doesn't flail his arms as if he's one blow away from collapse.
"That's because he's a big, strong kid, and he's never had to do it," Walker said. "Whereas, a guy like me who wasn't blessed with a body like that, maybe I had to work on my acting skills.
"When I got pushed, maybe I over-exaggerated that to a certain extent. Not to say you do that on every play. You have to be calculated."
If Randle chooses to act like the victim of a mugging on Saturday, he'd surely have a capacity Rupp Arena crowd imploring the referees to administer the Big Blue Nation's notion of justice.
But like Duncan in 1996 or previous UK strongmen like James Lee, Winston Bennett and Jamaal Magloire, Randle's imposing persona makes him ill-suited for the role of victim.
"Sometimes the refs (think), 'If he's the enforcer, maybe he should take more punishment than the normal guy,'" Walker said.
If so perceived, Walker had advice for Randle, one low-post presence to another: "You better play through contact."Kentucky vs. Louisville
When: 4 p.m. Saturday Where: Rupp Arena Records: No. 18 UK (9-3), No. 6 U of L (11-1) TV: CBS-27