(1) Kentucky (11-3) at (17) Louisville (8-3)

Fair Currently: Louisville, KY
Temp: 71° F
  • Game info: 4:30 pm EST Sun Jan 4, 2009
  • *Kentucky
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Rick Pitino started the tradition years ago, just to get a rise out of Kentucky equipment manager Bill Keightley.

The day of the annual Louisville-Kentucky game, Pitino - then the coach at Kentucky - would ask the man dubbed “Mr. Wildcat” what the big deal was about the rivalry with the hated Cardinals.

Pitino would repeat the question over and over as the Wildcats made the hour-long trip west to Freedom Hall. By the time they arrived, Keightley, who died in March, would be in a frenzy.

“He’d stomp his hands and say, ‘Son, you’re from New York. You just don’t get it. You just don’t get it. You don’t understand,”’ Pitino said. “He’d go on and on and on and for years I thought the Louisville people belonged in hell.”

Pitino, now the coach of the 18th-ranked Cardinals, laughed while telling the story. He certainly doesn’t believe that of “Louisville people” these days, though his underachieving team has been in a purgatory of sorts heading into Sunday’s showdown with the surging Wildcats.

The Cardinals (8-3) began the year ranked third in the country and were a popular Final Four pick, but probably need a win over their archrivals just to stay in the polls. The latest disappointment came in a 56-55 loss - at home - to undermanned UNLV on New Year’s Eve.

Not that Pitino is worried about Louisville’s national standing. With life in the brutal Big East starting next week, the Cardinals need a victory just to restore a little bit of their swagger. That they’ll get their last chance to post a quality nonconference win against Kentucky (11-3) is almost beside the point.

“I’m more concerned about playing better basketball than who we’re playing right now,” Pitino said. “Other years, it would be different.”

Louisville beat the Wildcats 89-75 in Rupp Arena last year, a victory that propelled the Cardinals to a second-place finish in the Big East and an eventual trip to the NCAA tournament regional finals.

The game also proved to be the turning point in the season for Kentucky, which rebounded to roll through the Southeastern Conference and reach the NCAAs for the 17th straight year and make coach Billy Gillispie’s trying first season a modest success.

That turbulent winter suddenly seems like a long time ago.

The Wildcats have won six straight, but against mostly anonymous foes. Even their biggest win this season - a 54-43 victory over West Virginia in the Las Vegas Invitational - came after midnight in front of a couple thousand fans in Sin City.

The Wildcats know a win on the road against the Cardinals on national television could go a long way toward proving they’re back.

“We need this,” said guard DeAndre Liggins. “We need to show that we’re a good team.”

The Wildcats have certainly looked like one over the last three weeks, playing at the kind of frenetic pace that used to be Pitino’s calling card when he was leading Kentucky to three Final Fours and a national championship in the 1990s.

“I think we are getting more comfortable at understanding what it is we are supposed to be doing,” Gillispie said. “Tomorrow will be a good test for us to see how well we play in a hostile environment.”

Guard Jodie Meeks is averaging 24.1 points a game while center Patrick Patterson has become one of the most polished big men in the country. Patterson is averaging 19.3 points and 9.4 rebounds while making a remarkable 72 percent of his shots from the floor. Not bad for a kid considered raw offensively coming out of high school.

“I don’t think there’s anybody in the country that can guard him one-on-one,” Pitino said.

Louisville freshman center Samardo Samuels will likely get the first shot. Samuels has played well if not spectacularly so far. He was victimized by UNLV’s Oscar Bellfield in the final seconds Wednesday, as Bellfield beat Samuels to the basket for the game-winning shot with 16 seconds remaining.

Pitino has refused to blame Samuels for Louisville’s early season struggles, saying his team’s problems come from taking contested shots from the perimeter and not trying to get the ball into its precocious big man.

“He’s doing as well as any freshman in the country in terms of his performance with the basketball team,” Pitino said. “He’s a freshman that has a lot to learn. … You can’t rush something. Freshmen generally just need time to develop the fundamentals at the collegiate level.”

Time, however, is running out. Kentucky offers one last chance to polish that nonconference resume, even if Pitino is careful not to put too much emphasis on it.

“The thing we can’t do is say this is the end-all,” Pitino said. “Last year we lost to some teams early in the year. The year before we lost to some teams early in the year. But this time around it’s a lot more difficult than in those years. While the competition then was keen, this year the competition is off the charts.”

Starting Sunday against a team that is eager to add a little quality to its quantity.

“For us a win would be great,” said Kentucky guard Michael Porter. “It would be against a ranked team and, as far as the rivalry is concerned, it would help us a lot mentally, especially to get over last year.”

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