The hype will be unavoidable, the outside noise deafening. This is Kentucky and Louisville meeting in the Final Four after all. Take all the anxiety, trash talk, bickering and chest pounding that typically takes place in a 365-day period in the Commonwealth and shoehorn it all into six days of pure, unadulterated, suffocating hype.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had 24 points and 19 rebounds in Kentucky's victory over Louisville on Dec. 31
Nothing has been bigger in the state of Kentucky since the 'Dream Game' in the 1983 NCAA Tournament, yet Kentucky coach John Calipari isn't buying any of that stuff making a lick of difference come Saturday night on the Mercedes Benz Superdome floor.
“At the end of the day it's the players that will win the game,” Calipari said during a Monday Final Four teleconference.
“They want to make a big deal about the rivalry. Not at this time of the year. It doesn't matter. If you win or lose you're going to feel the same whether it's a team you've played before or one you've never seen in your life. Whether it's a team 12 miles from you or a team that's 1,000 miles from you. It doesn't matter this time of year. It matters to fans, but we're not worried about that. We're worried about playing basketball.”
Kentucky enters the is second consecutive Final Four as the prohibitive favorite to cut down the nets next Monday night. If that's to happen then the Cats must beat their rival from 75 miles across Interstate 64 in Saturday's semifinals, then either the team they knocked out of last year's tournament – who by the way was the favorite to win it all at the time – or the one they defeated in New York City earlier this season. It's a road that doesn't allow for cruise control.
“Think about this whole Final Four: We ended Ohio State's season last year,” Calipari said. “We opened up this season beating Kansas, you don't think they want a piece of us? We beat Louisville earlier this season and they're going crazy to beat us. Everybody we play is that way so it's not as though this is any different than any other game we play. They'll play out of their mind and we know it.
“Obviously, with the internet, social media networks and all of that stuff you can't keep anything away from that. They hear everything. They talk to each other. That's just how it is nowadays. You hope they understand for us it's about us playing as well as we can. That's all we're trying to do.”
Kentucky arrived on the Final Four stage a year ago as the team to beat as well, although having reached that point through a very different course. The Cats exorcised their demons against West Virginia in the round of 32, knocked off heavily favored and top-seeded Ohio State in the Sweet 16, then exacted revenge for an earlier loss when it defeated North Carolina in the Elite Eight. Next came a rematch with Connecticut, which had routed Kentucky in the final of the Maui Invitational four months prior.
Things didn't work out as planned, as Kentucky struggled with the configuration of court in cavernous Reliant Stadium, shooting 33.9 percent from the field and 4-of-12 from the free throw line in a 56-55 loss. It wasn't the same team that had played the first four games of the tournament, which is what the pressure of the Final Four can do to inexperienced teams.
“All I'm trying to do with all of my teams is I want them to be playing our best and if the best isn't good enough we'll live with the results,” Calipari said. “Last year when we played Connecticut we weren't at our best and I don't know why, I don't have the answer to that. We played okay, but we had been playing lights out. We hit that game and didn't play the same way.
“I think this team has been steady all year. They've done it and had rivalry games, had teams that came out of the gate, the bump and grind, they've withstood all of that stuff. I feel good going in but you're talking about a Louisville team playing as good as anyone in the country and has really good players.”
Calipari knows one thing, the worst thing that can happen is allowing his team to get caught up in the emotional fixation on the KentuckyLouisville rivalry or their role as the favorite in New Orleans. That's Kentucky's biggest challenge this week.
“The minute you start drinking that poison you die,” Calipari said.
No. 4 LOUISVILLE vs. No. 1 KENTUCKY
Final Four – National Semifinals
When: 6:09 p.m.; Saturday, Mar. 31
Where: Mercedes Benz Superdome; New Orleans
TV: CBS; Radio: UK IMG Network
Last Meeting: Dec. 31, 2011 - @Kentucky 69, Louisville 62
Records: Louisville (30-9); Kentucky (36-2)
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