Perhaps Makayla Epps summed up best in two words what it might take others hundreds to say.
When Kentucky’s senior guard was asked about the No. 17 Cats’ upcoming game at seventh-ranked Louisville, she had two words: “Ooh, buddy.”
There’s something “ooh, buddy” about this rivalry game almost every time the two play and there’s plenty of it again this season with both teams ranked among the best in the nation and UK riding a five-game win streak over the Cardinals.
“I tell them jokingly all the time, ‘I don’t care if we win a game all year,’ but that one on Sunday, I need it,” said Epps, one of six players from Kentucky on the Cats’ roster this season.
“It’s the in-state rivalry, blue versus red. It’s Kentucky versus Louisville, just how the football game was. It’ll be fun.”
While most coaches might poo-poo the “ooh, buddy” before a big rivalry game, Matthew Mitchell is not most coaches. He’ll take anything that will provide an energy boost for UK when it goes into the KFC Yum Center on Sunday.
“I won’t tell them anything to not get them too jacked up for this one,” Mitchell said. “We need to get real jacked up for this one because we need to play at a real high level for this one, and we always do.”
Speaking of “jacked up,” Louisville is likely to come in with a similar disposition after losing two in a row to some of the best teams in the nation, first an 83-59 loss to No. 3 South Carolina followed by a 78-72 defeat at home to No. 5 Maryland.
“If our kids aren’t sick tomorrow and it’s not in the pit of their stomach on Sunday saying, ‘I’ve had enough,’ then we have serious problems,” Jeff Walz said after the loss to the Terrapins that included defensive breakdowns in the fourth quarter that left the Louisville coach in a foul mood.
After that loss, Walz lamented players not getting back on defense and not playing with energy in the final quarter of the game. He was especially unhappy about effort plays like rebounding.
Walz said one or two players went after loose balls the way he’d like.
“The rest of them, it just wasn’t important enough and that’s concerning,” Walz said. “It’s really concerning because we’ve got a Kentucky team coming in here on Sunday that if we do the same thing, you get the same result.”
Walz’s bulletin-board worthy — for his own team — news conference material included questioning some of his players’ heart.
“You’ve got to have a will,” he said. “Who’s got the will? We live right now in a generation of kids coming through where everybody gets a damn trophy.”
He expected more spirited practices as the Cardinals (6-2) prepared to take on Kentucky, which has won three straight games after falling in its only other road game at Colorado.
“We’ll see who wants to be here,” Walz said. “We’re at a point right now where it’s work. You’ve got to come out and you’ve got to work to be great.”
The Cats (6-1) have had their own sets of challenges this season, trying to bounce back from an unexpected mass exodus of players and all three assistant coaches last season.
Mitchell had to piece together a collection of role players for the team, but he hasn’t questioned the team’s heart and desire to play for each other.
But there are still a lot of question marks for Kentucky this season as it tries to keep stringing wins together, including how the mostly young, inexperienced Cats will handle a tough road environment and Louisville’s aggressiveness and athleticism.
“You just can’t play mindlessly against Louisville,” said Mitchell, whose team is coming off an 82-68 win over No. 12 Oklahoma on Thursday night.
“You’ve got to really be sharp mentally because they just are unafraid to mix things up, really a lot of multiple looks. So, you’ve got to try to simplify that for the players the best that you can.”
Louisville is deep with a lot of athleticism and now likely will come in with a chip on its shoulder after Walz’s blistering assessment.
“It’ll take everything we have, every bit of grit and moxie that we can muster to go over and try to win the game,” Mitchell said. “This is a big game for us, always is.
“It’s just another U of L-Kentucky game.”
No. 17 Kentucky at No. 7 Louisville
When: 2 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Live video broadcast: WatchESPN.com (online only)
Records: Kentucky 6-1, Louisville 6-2
Series: Kentucky leads 34-18 and has won the past five meetings.
Last meeting: Kentucky won 72-54 on Dec. 10, 2015, in Rupp Arena.