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Louisville looks to end rivalry skid against Kentucky, extend Wildcats’ early-season woes on Saturday


By Russ Brown
Kentucky Today

During his media teleconference Thursday morning, Kentucky head coach John Calipari told reporters that he had talked to Louisville coach Chris Mack and offered to postpone Saturday’s game instead of playing in a mostly empty KFC Yum! Center.


The suspicion was that Calipari had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, and further investigation revealed that was an accurate assumption.


Was such an offer suggested?


”Not true,” Mack said later during his own teleconference. “That’s just Cal being funny.”

Louisville head coach Chris Mack expects Kentucky to be a major challenge on Saturday afternoon. (UofL photo)

This is no laughing matter. The rivalry has become extremely one-sided as UK has dominated under Calipari, but this appears to be an excellent opportunity for UofL (5-1) to at least take a step toward reversing the trend when UK (1-5) staggers into the Yum for the 1 p.m. (ESPN) tipoff.


UofL has lost three in a row to UK and 11 of the last 13, including last year’s 78-70 overtime thriller in Rupp Arena.


”We know that Kentucky has won the last few, but I wouldn’t say we talk about it a whole lot,” UofL point guard Carlik Jones said. “It’s a huge game for both programs and I know we’ll be ready. How motivated we are and how hard we play for each other I think will say enough.”


Befitting this weird year, the scenario for the annual grudge match is also strange in that it’s the first time since the 2007-08 season that one team or the other — and often both — isn’t ranked. And it will be only the fifth time that has happened in 42 meetings dating back to their NCAA Regional final in Knoxville, Tenn., that revived the rivalry. That day coach Denny Crum’s No. 2 Cardinals defeated Joe B. Hall’s No. 12 Wildcats 80-68 in overtime in the so-called “Dream Game.”


In 2007-08 Louisville entered the game 9-4 with losses to BYU, Dayton, Purdue and Cincinnati. Kentucky, coached by Billy Gillespie, was 6-6, including losses to Gardner-Webb, Alabama-Birmingham and San Diego. The Cards won 89-75, their only victory in Rupp in eight trips since 2003.

This time the Wildcats are off to their worst start in nearly a century, have lost five in a row for the first time under Calipari and have glaring weaknesses, including an inability to shoot straight — they have hit only 24.3 percent of their 3-point attempts (25-103), No. 322 nationally.


So even though the Cardinals have their own problems — most worrisome 35 turnovers in the last two games — this looks like an ideal setup except for the fact that only 3,000 fans will be allowed to attend, thus lessening a major part of the homecourt advantage.

However, in their only encounter with a marquee foe, the Cards were demolished 85-48 by then-No. 12 Wisconsin a week ago before bouncing back with a 64-54 victory against shorthanded Pittsburgh on the road.


”It was a humbling game at Wisconsin, but we continue to stay the course, continue to try and improve,” Mack said. “I thought we made some good strides at Pitt. But they’re not Wisconsin, and Kentucky’s a whole different animal in the way they play and the challenge they present. So we’re gonna have to draw off our experience, both positive and negative, to be better on Saturday.”

Given their struggles, this has been called a must-win for the Wildcats, so Mack was asked if he expected them to rise to the occasion and play at a new level.

Chris Mack said his biggest worry defensively against UK is contending with 7-foot center Olivier Sarr. (UK photo)

“I’m expecting a team that plays extremely hard on the defensive end, is long and athletic, that makes some mistakes, but makes up for them by deflecting passes and blocking shots and playing with a ton of effort. That’s what I’m expecting,” he said.

Mack said his biggest worry defensively against UK is contending with 7-foot center Olivier Sarr, a transfer from Wake Forest who had 16 points and seven rebounds in UofL’s 86-76 win over the Demon Deacons last season. Starter Jae’Lyn Withers and backup J.J. Traynor, both 6-8 freshmen, will be tasked with defending Sarr, who is averaging 10.5 points and 5.7 rebounds.


”On the defensive end, there are a lot of challenges,” Mack said. “It starts with Sarr in the middle. He gave us problems last year and we had two experienced post players in Malik (Williams) and Steven (Enoch) a year ago. Now we have two freshmen, so we have to do what we need to do to make it a hard game on him.”

No player on Louisville’s current team scored a single point in last year’s loss to UK and only two even saw action in the game — forward Samuell Williamson played eight minutes and guard David Johnson was on the court for 27 seconds. They are both starters now.

“On the offensive end we have to take better care of the basketball, eliminate the careless turnovers,” Mack said. “Defensively, we have to keep them as best we can out of the open court, and that goes hand in hand with how you’re taking care of the basketball.


”What kind of offense are we running that leads to predictable shots for us so we can have good floor balance, offensive rebound and at the same time not let them get out in the open court. Then we have to make sure that we keep individual matchups and challenges in front of us as best we can because they have elite bursts with the ball and we need to be able to step in and take charges.”

Russ Brown covers University of Louisville sports for Kentucky Today. 


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