LOUISVILLE, Ky. – In the final minute of Louisville's rout of Western Kentucky in Nashville last Saturday, the Cardinal portion of the neutral-court crowd roared in unison.
"Beat UK! Beat UK! Beat UK!"
It was less a chant than a direct order. Or at least a heartfelt plea.
December basketball games are never must-win. But when Louisville hosts hated rival Kentucky on Saturday, it will be as close to must-win as December gets.
Because if the Cardinals don't get the Wildcats now, when will they?
Kentucky has won four in a row in the series, with John Calipari owning Rick Pitino since he arrived in 2009. That includes three decisive, albeit ugly, regular-season victories and the memorable Final Four showdown last April in New Orleans.
Next year, Kentucky welcomes in what could be one of the greatest recruiting classes in history. Louisville will be good for the foreseeable future, but it will lose several key players from this team and next season the game is in Rupp Arena.
So the time is now. The place is here. The imperative on Planet Red is tangible.
Louisville fans, quite tired of life beneath the Big Blue boot heel, very strongly sense that this is their chance for some payback. The Cardinals have the better team, the deeper team, the more experienced team and the home-court advantage. They have center Gorgui Dieng returning from a broken wrist at just the right time. Kentucky is the most vulnerable it has been since the Billy Gillispie days.
If you roll it all together, there is considerable pressure on Louisville to win this game. Not because the fans will give up on the team or try to fire the coach, but simply for day-to-day quality of life. The Cardinals wouldn't be able to go anywhere without hearing from their fans about a fifth straight loss to the Wildcats – and hearing about it in aggrieved, wounded and angry tones.
That's because the Louisville fans won't be able to go anywhere without hearing it from their Kentucky counterparts. This is a day-to-day, year-round rivalry, and when one side possesses the bragging rights for this long the other side gets a little edgy.
Pitino, for his part, showed no signs of feeling the exterior stress Friday. He was at his jocular best meeting the media, talking about having fun with the rivalry and laughing at those who get too uptight. He quipped that "mixed marriages" of Kentucky and Louisville fans "hurt our society," and refused to place any added emphasis on winning this game.
"Last year [in the Final Four] it cost us a chance to win the national championship," Pitino said. "That's when it's really more than just a game. They won the championship and we didn't. … There's only one game that's really mattered a great deal, where we were kind of devastated by it."
Outside the program bubble, there has been devastation over the results of this rivalry during the regular season. When Kentucky's Patrick Sparks made three free throws with less than a second to go to win the game in Freedom Hall in 2004, many Louisville fans remained in their seats in stunned disbelief for nearly an hour afterward. When Louisville's Edgar Sosa swished a 26-foot shot before the final horn in 2009, the effect on Kentucky fans was similar.
But Pitino correctly pointed out that beyond the heat of the nation's most passionate basketball rivalry – yes, more than Duke-North Carolina – is a game that will be won by the team that executes best. And this year, the team in position to do that for the first time in a while is Louisville.
For Kentucky, the key is handling Louisville's pressure defense. Right now, the Cardinals are the best defensive team in the nation by a considerable margin. They are No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy's rankings in defensive efficiency and forced turnovers, and second in steals. That means point guard Ryan Harrow, who has had something of a Harrow-ing season, will have to play very well.
Harrow missed four games because of illness or family issues or mind funk, depending who you asked and when. Since coming back he's played progressively better, averaging 14.3 points, four assists and just one turnover in his past three games. But those were against Portland, Lipscomb and Marshall, not Louisville defensive pests Peyton Siva and Russ Smith.
If Harrow holds up, Kentucky should have a chance to spring an upset – the Wildcats certainly are not at a talent deficit and seem to be getting better in recent weeks. If Harrow can’t handle the load and the Wildcats have to turn to freshman Archie Goodwin to handle the ball, the odds of UK running a coherent and efficient offense are reduced.
And if Dieng is indeed back and can play at a high rate for more than 30 minutes, the Wildcats are likely to struggle to find makeable shots. Put it this way: If UK had a hard time scoring against Notre Dame (50 points) and Baylor (55), it could really get difficult Saturday against Louisville's combinations of zone, man-to-man and full-court pressure.
(Until Louisville brought Dieng in to meet the media Friday, I had my doubts whether he would really play. Pitino is famous for public misdirection plays regarding players returning from injury, so I asked him why he'd bother telling the truth this time in advance of a big game. His answer: "Unfortunately, there are no secrets [in the modern social media world]. … I've known John a long time. He's smart enough to know he’s going to play.")
Pitino may also feel confident enough about his chances this time around that there was no need to be coy with Dieng’s availability. But if confidence doesn't equate to victory on Saturday, the coach will hear about it from a fan base tired of losing to its biggest rival.
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