The rivalry between UK and the University of Louisville has been one-sided since John Calipari became head coach of the Wildcats. Calipari is 4-0 versus Louisville at UK, but Saturday his team will face the Cardinals as the lower ranked team for the first time.
Louisville enters the annual rivalry matchup ranked No. 4 in the Associated Press top 25, while UK remains in the “also receiving votes” category in the AP poll for the fourth consecutive week and is ranked No. 23 in the coaches’ poll.
“This is a great challenge for us,” Calipari said Friday. “I would say what I’m seeing (from Louisville) right now, you’re talking about a team that should be or is the odds-on favorite to win the whole thing.”
Calipari coaches versus Marshall. (Photo by Jon Hale)
Calipari’s first UK team was ranked No. 3 in the country before taking on an unranked Louisville. His second team was ranked No. 11 before facing then No. 22 Louisville at the KFC Yum Center. During the 2012 championship season, UK faced the No. 4 Cardinals as the No. 3 team in the country during the regular season and the No. 17 Cardinals as the No. 1 team in the country in the NCAA Tournament Final Four.
UK players are not shying away from their role as a rare underdog.
“I definitely think that kind of motivates us a little bit because no one really thinks we can win the game,” said junior guard Jarrod Polson. “At any time that happens, it kind of motivates you a little extra more. I definitely think that will be good for us.”
“It’s just part of us losing early,” said freshman forward Archie Goodwin. “At the same time, I think that we need that as motivation for us.”
Statistics seem to back up Louisville’s lofty rankings.
Louisville leads the nation in turnover margin with opponents averaging 8.6 more turnovers per game than the Cardinals and ranks second in the country in steals with a team average of 11.9 per game.
The Cardinals’ swarming defense has resulted in an average of 27.1 points off turnovers per game for Louisville, accounting for 35 percent of the team’s total points scored. Louisville has forced its opponent into at least 20 turnovers in nine of 12 games this season.
While Louisville likely represents the toughest defensive challenge the Wildcats will have faced thus far this season, turnovers have yet to be an issue for UK.
UK is averaging 12.3 turnovers per game and has yet to turn the ball over more than 16 times in a game. The Cats’ ball security has been led by sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow, who has turned the ball over just five times in seven games.
“You’ve got to be strong and play through all the bump and grinding stuff,” Calipari said of his team’s strategy for combatting Louisville’s pressure defense. “You’ve got to be strong with the ball, got to have great spacing.”
Polson noted the Wildcats have put in extra time in practice during the last two weeks working on breaking the press.
“We’ve just really got to be strong with the ball,” he said. “Hopefully turnovers won’t hurt us too bad.”
While Louisville players may be looking for revenge with five players returning who played in the 2012 Final Four loss to UK, the Cats feature just one player, sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer, who appeared in the game.
Wiltjer is the only Cat with any real experience versus the Cardinals after he logged 23 minutes in the teams’ two meetings last season. Senior guard Twany Beckham saw two minutes of action in the first meeting last season, and redshirt junior guard Jon Hood saw the court for one minute as a sophomore in 2010.
Polson is the only current Wildcat expected to play significant minutes Saturday who grew up around the rivalry.
Still, he says his teammates are well aware of what the game means to fans.
“I probably know more about it just growing up (here), but at the end of the day we all want to win,” he said. “I don’t really think I want to win any more (than them).”
Freshman guard Archie Goodwin and freshman forward Nerlens Noel both say it didn’t take long to understand the rivalry.
“This is a big game, I believe,” Noel said. “Especially for the state of Kentucky. We’re ready to play this game out, just really give it our all.”
“It’s a big rivalry,” Goodwin said. “It’s something we knew coming in here. All schools have that rivalry, so this is just one of them.”
Even if the majority of his players don’t understand the rivalry yet, Calipari thinks “they’ll feel it when the game starts.”
How his young team will respond to the atmosphere at the Yum Center is a major question mark after a loss in their only other true road game of the season at Notre Dame.
“I’ve got all young kids, so you have no idea,” Calipari said. “I go in game to game just saying, ‘I wonder what’s happening here,’ trying different lineups trying to figure out my team.”
Rivarly or not, Calipari is eager to see how much progress his team has made with a test versus one of the best teams in the country.
“This comes at a great time for us,” he said. “We just are winding down a bunch of workouts, doing different things, trying to change mindsets, trying to change habits. Then, you’re going against an opponent like this, that’s maybe the best team in the country with talented players. At each position they can beat you.
“This is what we need. Let’s see where we are.”
You can read more from Calipari’s new conference previewing the Louisville game on the KyForward UK Sports Notebook Tumblr.