The Kentucky-Louisville rivalry has taken many forms since being resurrected with the 'Dream Game' in the 1983 NCAA Tournament, but the one thing each of the last four meetings between the basketball version of the Hatfields and McCoys has had is a specific game plan by the Cardinals.
Archie Goodwin and the Cats' guards must be able to handle Louisville's pressure defense on Saturday
“They do a great job of trying to muck up the game,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.
The Cardinals are a walking embodiment of coach Rick Pitino's coaching personality. They hound and harass opponents into submission, pressuring them all over the floor in an effort to win both the mental and physical games within the game. Never has that been more evident than against Kentucky, which has witnessed Louisville attempt to slow the game down and physically batter the Cats, who are often younger than the Cardinals under Calipari's direction.
Kentucky has won four in a row against Louisville including the Final Four meeting last season, but Calipari is well aware what the No. 4 Cardinals will attempt to do in Saturday's showdown at the KFC Yum! Center.
“This is a game that if you physically can't withstand this game, then it's going to show,” Calipari said. “Because they are physically, they're coming after you that way. So we've got to be able to fight and battle for 40 minutes. Be strong with the ball. Make sure you're getting open. Those kind of things. The score will take care of itself for us. This thing is, 'All right, let's battle. Let's go after them. Let's see what we've worked on.'”
Applying the game plan won't be as easy as it is to draw up. Louisville ranks second nationally in steals per game with 11.9 pilfers a game, and leads the country in turnover margin at plus-8.6 per game. The Cardinals have scored 35 percent of their total points directly off opponent's turnovers. The hounding defense is a staple of Pitino's best teams through the years.
“You’ve gotta be strong and play through all the bump and grinding stuff,” Calipari said. “You’ve gotta be strong with the ball, got to have great spacing. You can’t just be muddled up, because they leave and trap.
“The good news for us is that this is a game of less plays and more players making plays. That plays to our favor. It’s less having to execute, which we are too young to really be a great execution team, and it’s more of reacting to two-on-ones, three-on-twos, four-on-threes, attacking the basket, stuff that we do better. But, again, you’ve got to play through all the bumps and the grinds and all the other stuff, which is how they play.”
The Cardinals have a decided advantage in backcourt experience with Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, but neither of those players have been able to beat Kentucky. They will undoubtedly go after Kentucky's Ryan Harrow, Julius Mays and Archie Goodwin, but Harrow and Mays have been terrific in terms of taking care of the basketball, combining for 60 assists against just 16 turnovers. Goodwin has been less protective of the ball with a team-high 36 turnovers.
“Aside from Ryan, we're all better, but Ryan puts people in the right spots and he's really gotten better and better,” Calipari said. “This will be a great challenge for him because this is going to be a physical, body-on-body game. This is exactly what he needs.”
The Cats' sporadic schedule during the month of December has led to questions about how prepared they will be for the game but it has also allowed them to work on handling Louisville's pressure for longer than usual.
“We've kind of been going over their stuff for maybe two weeks now,” UK guard Jarrod Polson said. “Marshall kind of plays like them so that was kind of an added benefit. We've been giving them pretty good attention and hopefully know what to expect. We've been focusing on their defensive pressure.”
Kentucky will find out soon enough if it's capable of wading through the muck Louisville will create on Saturday.
KENTUCKY at #4 LOUISVILLE
When: 4 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 29
Where: KFC Yum! Center; Louisville, Ky.
TV: CBS; Radio: UK IMG Sports Network
Series: Kentucky leads 30-14 (11-7 in Louisville)
Last Season: Dec. 31, 2011 - @Kentucky 69, Louisville 62; Apr. 2, 2012 – Kentucky 69, Louisville 61 (NCAA Final Four – New Orleans)
Records: Kentucky (8-3); Louisville (11-1)