UK Men's Basketball

Kentucky eager for challenge Louisville presents

Kentucky's Willie Cauley-Stein and Louisville's Wayne Blackshear challenged each other for a rebound during last season's NCAA Tournament semifinal.
Kentucky's Willie Cauley-Stein and Louisville's Wayne Blackshear challenged each other for a rebound during last season's NCAA Tournament semifinal. AP

From the smile on his face to the eagerness in his voice, Willie Cauley-Stein made no secret of how he looks forward to Kentucky playing at Louisville.

"They hate us," he said. "Because we're Kentucky and they're Louisville. They hate us."

The ill will travels east to west as well as west to east, Cauley-Stein added. Kentucky fans share the same antipathy toward Louisville as U of L feels about UK.

"It's funny to me," he said. "I can't wait."

But UK Coach John Calipari spent a good portion of a news conference Friday trying to add some big-picture perspective to a game that's always eagerly anticipated even when it doesn't feature two teams ranked among the nation's top four.

In addition to the raucous and unsparing atmosphere surrounding UK's first game on an opponent's court, Calipari spoke of Louisville testing Kentucky as a basketball opponent. It seems to go without saying that Kentucky will test Louisville.

Till now, neither team has had to sweat. UK has not trailed in the final 13:04 of any game, and trailed in the second half against only two opponents ( Buffalo and Columbia). Louisville has not faced a deficit in the final 16 minutes of any game.

That must change for one, if not both teams in the KFC Yum Center on Saturday.

Calipari suggested the Cats embrace this change as a means toward the grandest of ends: UK's outsize ambition to achieve on a historic level.

"We need somebody to punch us in the face," he said, accenting the word "us" as if to note how many times Kentucky has pummeled opponents this season. "Now, let's see if we can still have fun. Can we enjoy this?

"If we're a world-class team, you enjoy this. Even when they're coming at you. You enjoy it."

Calipari saluted Louisville and Coach Rick Pitino. "Rick's going to have his team ready, no question," Calipari said. "And you've got to have your team ready."

The numbers suggest Louisville can look Kentucky in the eye. The Cardinals' average margin of victory (22.9 points) ranks seventh nationally. UK's (29.1 ppg) ranks first.

Louisville's defense has held opponents to 34.4 percent shooting (eighth-best nationally), while Kentucky ranks first (30 percent). U of L's opponents have averaged 54.4 points (eighth-fewest); UK's, 47.7 (second-fewest).

The difference on defense is negligible, Calipari said.

"Defensively, it's obvious they're as good as anybody in the country," he said of the Cards. "They're as good as we are."

When asked about the special feeling associated with rivalries, he mentioned UMass-Temple.

The calendar demands that the UK-U of L rivalry be put in perspective, Calipari said. The ultimate importance of games does not come until the postseason.

"It's winning or learning at this stage," he said. "There's no winning or losing."

Calipari reminded reporters that he's always removed make-or-break implications from games in the regular season. He's even mocked the Southeastern Conference Tournament as a needless exercise (although the Cats righted themselves in Atlanta last March).

Calipari saluted Louisville as a worthy opponent and tried to dampen the runaway impression that Kentucky can run away from any and all opponents.

"We're not the only good basketball team out there," he said. "Sometimes you forget. There are a bunch of other teams, including Louisville, who have a bunch of good players."

When asked which Louisville player represented a concern, Calipari mentioned Wayne Blackshear, Terry Rozier and Montrezl Harrell. "They all can play and all can get 30 (points). They'll all probably try to get 30."

As for UK concerns, Calipari noted how he'd like to see the Cats run the floor better, especially in transition from defense to offense. He also mentioned an increasingly familiar concern: defensive rebounding.

Calipari called defensive rebounding "our biggest issue" and along with guards grabbing more rebounds "our major concerns."

But, he added, the Cats have several months to improve and fine-tune.

"If we are at our best and we can't win, then we move on," he said, echoing the comments of the UK coach of Christmas past. "It's fine.

"Now in March, it's a little different. (Then) it's not fine."

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