John Calipari painted a challenging, if not bleak, picture of what his Kentucky team faces at Louisville on Saturday. If (when?) adversity hits, UK should not seek reassurance from a friendly face.
“Terrific team,” he said of Louisville on Friday. “On the road. Everybody against us. Let’s go see where we are.”
After noting that the last ranked opponent to play at U of L — then-No. 9 Michigan State — lost, Calipari added, “So we know how good they are.” And in case reporters forgot, the UK coach reminded listeners that Louisville beat Seton Hall (70-65) which beat Kentucky a week later.
The uncertainty and controversy surrounding Louisville basketball in recent years? It will not detract from the ultra competitiveness associated with the usual UK-U of L drama, Calipari said.
“It’s still that game,” he said. “You’re playing Louisville. And you’re playing in their building where they play well. Where they’re waiting in the weeds for us. It’s going to be a hard game.”
Calipari veered from this script only when asked about Kentucky playing a second straight high-profile game. To borrow from sporting parlance, the Cats seemed on a mission against North Carolina last weekend. Dull memories of the blowout loss to Duke on opening night. Re-introduce UK as a national contender.
Mission accomplished. Now, can the Cats summon a similar passion against an archrival in a game that — at least momentarily — makes or breaks a season for fans of both teams? And this time it would seem Louisville is the team on a mission.
“If you told me (the games were) Wednesday and Saturday, I might say it might affect us,” Calipari said of UNC and U of L back-to-back. “But this was a week ago.”
After Kentucky beat North Carolina, Roy Williams credited UK with playing harder. Might the Tar Heels have been suffering from a hangover caused by a victory over then-No. 4 Gonzaga the weekend before playing Kentucky?
Williams did not rule that out when contacted Friday.
“We have a great, great win, and I’m saying, ‘Guys, that’s just one game. Our next game is just as big,’” he said he told his players after they beat Gonzaga. “But we did not have that pep in our step and on our toes like I thought Kentucky was.
“To me, it was an eight-point game, but I thought we were getting beat by 30.”
Williams suggested an intense rivalry coming in the second game rather than the first in a tandem of challenges can make a difference.
“I think a rivalry situation takes care of that,” he said when asked about a team’s motivation in the second of two straight intense games. “For us, if we used that as an excuse that we weren’t fired up for Duke, then we’re being silly, and I think Kentucky and Louisville would be the same way.
“I think it would be more difficult (to summon a high level of intensity in game two) if you play the rivalry game first.”
Of course, graduate transfer Reid Travis has more experience in rivalry games than any of his Kentucky teammates. His experience came in the Stanford-Cal rivalry. Palo Alto and Berkeley are separated by only 31 miles.
“It was called ‘Big Game Week,’” Travis said. “Everything kind of shuts down for that week.”
Travis, who grew up in Minneapolis, could not explain what exactly Stanford fans do not like about Cal, and vice versa.
“I don’t really see the beef,” he said, “but there’s a lot of back and forth. It’s fun.”
With a smile, Travis added, “When it was Big Game Week, and you saw someone with Cal stuff on, it was a problem.”
The challenges Louisville presents for Kentucky include this: It will be UK’s first “true” road game. And, as the Big Blue Nation knows, UK has a 1-2 record away from Rupp Arena this season.
“I say just enjoy it,” Travis said of the advice he’d give his teammates. “That’s the biggest thing. Just enjoy it. Suck it all up. You know you have to enjoy there’s that many people there. Whether they’re cheering for you or not, that’s a great atmosphere.”
Some players on the road in a rivalry game might enjoy being a villain and use the jeers and boos as motivation. Not Travis.
“I’m a little more even-keeled than that,” he said. “A lot of guys do kind of seek out negative energy that might be (directed) toward them, and kind of use that as fuel. . . . I’m sure certain guys on the team will use that to help them. Whatever you need to do to kind of get yourself up to play, I’m all about it.”
No. 16 Kentucky at Louisville
When: 2 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 9-2, Louisville 9-3
Series: Kentucky leads 35-16
Last meeting: Kentucky won 90-61 on Dec. 29, 2017, in Lexington.