Like getting an early start on Christmas shopping, Kentucky Coach John Calipari began last week to call attention to Louisville's pressing/trapping defensive style. He said the Cardinals will grab, hold, claw, bite, scratch, fold, spindle and mutilate.
Of course, Calipari did not mention Louisville by name. But it sounded oh-so-familiar.
"Let me tell you," he said last week as if talking to a UK player. "You're going to be playing in games they grab, they hold, they kick, they push, they bite."
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"Can you play in that kind of game?" Calipari asked. "If you can't play in that kind of game, you can't win that game."
That sure wasn't a reference to UCLA, which surrendered without a shot being fired (into the basket) in losing 83-44 against Kentucky Saturday. Or as UCLA guard Bryce Alford said of the Bruins' early 24-0 deficit, "We can't come out scared. We can't come out tentative or passive."
Calipari talked the same hack-sack-and-smack about Louisville prior to the 2012 Final Four. Before that national semifinal, Rick Pitino was asked about how accurately biting, scratching, clawing and gouging described his signature defensive strategy.
"He's done that since the UMass days when he spoke about us in '96 in Kentucky," the U of L coach said with a smile. "He thinks the referees read the newspapers. He thinks the referees stay up at night and listen to Coach Cal's comments. They really don't.
"I can play a tape back from Memphis when I was at Kentucky, pretty much the same thing as well. Pretty much the same operating procedure. You don't have to write it down because you heard it back in '96." (Pitino's smile brightened.)
Cameron Mills, who played for Pitino at UK in the 1990s, laughed when asked if Calipari sought to influence the referees in the Yum Center on Saturday when he suggested last week that a future opponent might push, pull, bump and bang.
"Why else would he say it?" Mills said.
After the NBA Combine in October, is there any doubt that Calipari will look for any possible edge?
Perhaps force of habit moved him to sound alarms about Louisville's defensive pressure.
But another former UK player during the Pitino era, Tony Delk, joined Mills in saying he expected a quick whistle when Kentucky plays at Louisville this Saturday. The rivalry, the perceived tension between Calipari and Pitino, and the one-game suspension Montrezl Harrell served this week because of an elbow he threw against Western Kentucky all suggest the referees will want to control the action.
"That game is always going to be called tight," Delk said.
UK fans of a certain age know that Pitino's style is anything but UCLA nice. Rupp Arena rocked with approval in the 1990s as Pitino's teams trapped and pressed and played what he liked to call "mother-in-law defense:" constant harassment.
"We believed the refs couldn't call every foul," Delk said. "If it's an obvious call, they're going to call it."
Whether a rationalization or semantics or a belief in might-makes-right, Pitino's Kentucky teams came to believe they were not fouling.
"We felt like the way we played, it was our style," Delk said. "Whoever is more aggressive, the referees kind of favor that team because they're showing aggression."
However, UK fans rose in righteous indignation when an opponent (Arkansas with Nolan Richardson, now Louisville with Pitino) used the same aggressive tactics against Kentucky.
But there was a limit to the aggression. When asked how accurately biting-scratching-clawing described Kentucky's style under Pitino, Mills said, "It's not accurate. At least what we were taught was certainly not cheap shots or grab the jersey and get away with it. We were never taught to try to get away with whatever we could do without the refs seeing it."
Pitino's Kentucky teams aimed to wear teams down with pressing and trapping, not beat them up.
Then transferring that thinking to Louisville possibly trying to exhaust UK's platoons on Saturday, Delk added, "That's not going to be a problem for Kentucky."