UK Men's Basketball

John Clay: Louisville game another chance for Kentucky to raise bar

Kentucky's Aaron Harrison, left, and Louisville's Terry Rozier
Kentucky's Aaron Harrison, left, and Louisville's Terry Rozier

This may be a surprising admission for someone in my business, but with regard to Kentucky basketball, the fear this year was that it would be, well, sort of boring.

That's right, boring.

After all, how many different ways can you write that Kentucky mashed another overmatched opponent?

And yet, a dozen games into this campaign, the Kentucky basketball season has been anything but boring. The top-ranked Cats have won each of their first 12 games by double-digits, but their total mastery in those games has commanded your attention.

Kansas is a college basketball icon. Kentucky stunned the Jayhawks 72-40. Texas nearly matched the Cats' length. UK bettered the Longhorns 63-51. North Carolina is North Carolina. UK handled the Tar Heels 84-70.

Saturday in the United Center was a step beyond. There are these home makeover shows that are so popular. Each has something called a "Demolition Day" where the contractor guts the premises. That's what Saturday felt like. Kentucky was the mighty sledgehammer. UCLA was the rotting, mold-infested wall. Bruins in ruins. UK 83, UCLA 44.

Now it's UK-U of L week.

Do I think Louisville will win on Saturday at the Yum Center? I do not. After seeing Kentucky a dozen times this year, it's hard to envision any college team, even a talented, well-coached, unbeaten team such as Louisville, beating John Calipari's machine.

And yet, Saturday will be Kentucky's first game on an opponent's home floor. The Kansas game was played in Indianapolis. The UCLA game was played in Chicago. Texas and North Carolina faced the Cats at Rupp.

Will the venue make a difference? It could. While it is true that one way or another an inordinate number of Kentucky fans find their way into the Yum Center seats every other year, U of L's fans will be pumped. The Cards will be pumped at this shot to knock off No. 1.

Let's say this Kentucky team ends up 39-1 and wins the national title. If the Cats lose Saturday, Louisville fans can still say, 'Yeah, but you couldn't beat us.'"

Hard feelings aside, Kentucky fans know never to underestimate Rick Pitino. Forearm shivers aside, Montrezl Harrell is extremely hard to handle inside. The guard combo of Chris Jones and Terry Rozier are both quick and can score. The Cards are capable.

There are red flags, however. For starters, Louisville hasn't faced the same level of competition as have the Cats.

The Cards' best win to date was 64-55 over Ohio State at the Yum Center on Dec. 2. That's the same Ohio State that lost to North Carolina 82-74 in the first game of the CBS Sports Classic in Chicago on Saturday. That's the same North Carolina that lost 84-70 to Kentucky in Rupp just over a week ago.

Comparative scores is risky business; comparative schedules less so. Computer whiz Jeff Sagarin rates Kentucky as having played the 85th-toughest schedule in Division I. His computer places Louisville's schedule at No. 231 in terms of difficulty.

Plus, the bigger the stage, the better Kentucky has played. Its two best performances to date are the Kansas game in the Champions Classic and the UCLA game in the CBS Sports Classic.

After the win over Kansas, Calipari said, "We're not that good" with the emphasis on "that." After the UCLA game, Calipari told Bruins Coach Steve Alford, "That's as good as we go."

That's the fascinating question, however, the one that keeps us enthralled. How good can this team go?

Consider that in 24 halves this season, Kentucky has held its opponent under 20 points nine times. Saturday, it held UCLA under 10 points in the first half. It led by 34 at intermission. It won by 39.

Consider that even basketball's most hardened observers, ones who believed it impossible for a college basketball team to run the table, have become believers that this Kentucky team makes it possible.

For any fan of basketball, or history, it's all very far from boring.

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