John Clay

John Clay: Cats, Cards poised to give us something special

Kentucky's Aaron Harrison drove against Louisville's Luke Hancock during the Cats' 74-69 NCAA Tournament victory over the Cards on March 28 in Indianapolis. Hancock has graduated, but the No. 4 Cardinals are national title contenders again as they host No. 1 Kentucky on Saturday in Louisville.
Kentucky's Aaron Harrison drove against Louisville's Luke Hancock during the Cats' 74-69 NCAA Tournament victory over the Cards on March 28 in Indianapolis. Hancock has graduated, but the No. 4 Cardinals are national title contenders again as they host No. 1 Kentucky on Saturday in Louisville. Herald-Leader

For Kentuckians, this is basketball the way it is meant to be.

Kentucky is undefeated.

Louisville is undefeated.

Kentucky is a top-five team, ranked No. 1 in the nation.

Louisville is a top-five team, ranked No. 4 in the nation.

Kentucky is coached by John Calipari, the dominant force in college basketball today.

Louisville is coached by Rick Pitino, a Hall of Famer generally regarded as one of the best who has ever coached the game.

Saturday at 2 p.m. in the KFC Yum Center in Louisville, Kentucky and Louisville meet on probably the biggest stage you can have for a regular-season game and, as people who love basketball and appreciate great basketball, we should all take a step back and give ourselves a collective pinch.

It doesn't matter if you wear blue; it doesn't matter if you wear red.

Either way, we should listen to Willie Cauley-Stein.

To this point in the season, the 7-foot junior may well be college basketball's player of the year. He has blocked shots, made shots, guarded and shut down smaller, quicker players away from the rim. This is a 7-footer, remember.

On Friday at the Joe Craft Center, media types huddled around the Kansas native to hear what Cauley-Stein had to say because, (a) he figures to be a major player in the Saturday showdown, and (b) as Willie himself might put it (about someone else), he's an interesting dude.

"You're kind of hoping they come in and play out of their minds," Cauley-Stein said of the Cardinals.

Not "I hope we play well," though no doubt the Wildcat hopes the Wildcats play well. Cauley-Stein said he hopes Louisville plays well. That's the same Louisville that is Kentucky's archrival. The same Louisville the Big Blue Nation wants so badly to beat, just as Louisville fans want to beat Kentucky.

Why do you want Louisville to play well?

"One, we need it," Cauley-Stein said. "Two, it makes the game fun."

War isn't fun, and between the lines Saturday figures to be a war. Points should be at a premium. On average, Kentucky allows just 47.7 points per game. Louisville allows 54.4 points per game. Those are low numbers.

Louisville plays an aggressive style of defense with the purpose of creating turnovers. The Cardinals get in your face. What John Calipari may want most out of every team he coaches is one that will not back down when the opponent gets in its face.

"Coach has just been putting an emphasis on fighting," said Kentucky guard Andrew Harrison on Friday. "Not literally fighting, but being tough, boxing out and things like that."

That can make for an ugly game, and these UK-U of L games in the Calipari/Pitino run of the rivalry haven't always been pretty. They've been huge games — especially the 2012 Final Four game and last season's Sweet 16 game of the NCAA Tournament, both won by Kentucky — and intense games, but not necessarily beautiful games.

Still, so far this season, no team in the country has played basketball any better than Kentucky or Louisville. They may have played as well, but not better, certainly not better than Kentucky.

"They're a great basketball team," Pitino said on Tuesday, and you got the feeling he believed every syllable of that.

Truth is, UK might be on the cusp of something historic. And Louisville isn't bad, either. In fact, many believe if any team in the nation is going to beat Kentucky in the regular season it is Louisville.

So, how lucky can we be that one team is so good that the only team on its regular-season schedule that might be able to beat it is located in our very own state?

Friday, Cauley-Stein was again asked why he wanted Louisville to play its best.

"I feel like if they play at their best, we're just going to match it. We're going to play at our best," he said. "I don't think anybody has really seen us play at our best."

Two basketball teams performing at such a level they bring out the best in each other is not just a hope for Saturday.

It's the way basketball is meant to be.

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