Tomorrow marks the one day on virtually every Kentuckian’s personal calendar where a college sporting event takes precedence over literally all things excluding life and death. You see tomorrow It’s Louisville vs Kentucky. It’s state school vs city school. It’s ACC vs SEC. It’s Rick Pitino vs John Calapari. It’s good vs evil (depending on which side you support). But more than anything, it’s what people in The Bluegrass State talk about, blog about, argue about and deliberate on almost every day of the year until the actual game is played. Funny thing is, neither school has ever lost out on or solidified a post season NCAA Tournament berth by winning or losing this game. But, that matters not. Sometimes pride and the overall satisfaction of knowing you rule the roost of your own backyard means more than anything. And when a 10-1 Louisville squad invades Rupp Arena tomorrow to face off against a fellow nationally ranked Kentucky squad, that certainly will be the case.
The story lines as usual are endless. Whether it’s how soft UofL’s schedule has been this far, how disappointing UK’s front line has shown to be, or simply whether or not Madame extroardanaire Katina Powell will be in the stands (betting she is not) for the tip, all that will matter throughout and in the end is who owns the final tally. Bragging rights matter if you hadn’t heard.
Even as an adamant UofL fan, I along with other fellow die hard Cardinal faithful have to begrudgingly be transparent by saying that in terms of head to head matchups, John Calapari has placed a strong hold on Rick Pitino and the Louisville program since his arrival in Lexington.
Ironically, that very strong hold has surprisingly not devoured or consumed UofL basketball and it’s recent success on the hard wood. In a strange way, some would argue that Calapri’s overall success and obvious disdain for Louisville has revigorated Pitino late in his coaching career. The last national title to come out of this state, after all, belongs to Louisville and the Cards have managed to hold their own in overall post season performance by reaching the Final Four two of the last four years. Last season they were one made free throw away for going back to another one. In comparing, UK obviously has set the standard for recent post season success by making the Final Four a practical vacation home.
So what does this game really boil down too after you sift through all the predictions and individual/team numbers? In my opinion, it comes down to the same things it always has: which team gets out of the gate the fastest, which head coach can persuade the whistle most favorably for his team to avoid foul trouble (rarely an issue for UK as of late due to their staggering depth), and which team shoots the ball well from behind the three point line.
Shooting, quite frankly, has often been the nemesis for previous UofL teams in this series. Last year there were stretches of the game where one had to wonder if UofL was ever going to actually score at all. Even some of Rick Pitino’s best Louisville teams over the past decade have labored to shoot the ball well but have conversely been uber successful by playing terrific defense. This year’s UofL team has shown, thus far, to be a team that actually CAN shoot the ball well. Fifth year seniors Trey Lewis (photo above) and Damion Lee bring a bevy of talents to this Cardinal squad, one being the ability to fill it up from behind the arc. UofL will need both of them, along with vastly improving point guard Quentin Snider to find the bottom of the bucket often and early against UK for the Cards to escape with a win.
In summation (I could blog about this rivalry/series/game for days on end) I go into this game, as one who bleeds RED, cautiously optimistic. This game eerily reminds me of the matchup from 2013 when the Cards came to Lexington with a group of seasoned players (Luke Hancock, Russ Smith), a national ranking and a ton of confidence only to succumb to a UK team who appeared to want it just a little more and one that played directly off the energy injected into it by the 23K+ Kentucky fans in attendance that Saturday afternoon.
Often times you will hear coaches tell their players in the most intimidating and daunting of games and atmospheres to “just play”. I think that is exactly what you will see Pitino do in this situation as his team looks to be one of the more impressionable, selfless team-oriented squads he’s assembled since he stepped foot on UofL’s campus back in the early 2000’s. But being cohesive and likable won’t be enough to win on Saturday. Guys simply have to make plays, and they’ll need to make them in the clutch.
So here’s to hoping that Chinanu Onuaku doesn’t collect his second personal foul before the first under 16:00 minute TV timeout, that Ashley Judd wears deodorant for the sake of the cameras, that nobody on either team gets injured and that, most importantly, Louisville beats Kentucky.