By LARRY VAUGHT
When Kentucky and Louisville play Saturday in Rupp Arena, there’s obviously going to be a lot of stake to go along with in-state bragging rights for another year.
If Kentucky, the preseason No. 1 team, wants to climb back into the top 10 of the Associated Press poll any time soon, it needs to beat this win or else the Wildcats likely will tumble out of the rankings altogether going into January — something no one thought possible when the season started.
If Louisville, the defending national champion, wants to justify its claim to a top 10 spot, it needs the win.
And for NCAA Tournament seeding, the game is huge for both teams because neither one has a marque victory yet and neither will have an abundance of opportunities for those signature wins the rest of the year.
So does winning this game mean more to Kentucky coach John Calipari or Louisville coach Rick Pitino, two intense competitors and often bitter rivals?
“Winning any game means a lot to those two,” said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas. “Clearly, this game is really important, but I don’t think either one of them hangs their hat on regular season wins alone. Winning or losing this game wouldn’t have erased or diminished last season’s finish for either team.”
Well, it might for Kentucky because the Cats lost in the first round of the NIT while Louisville won the national title. This was supposed to be UK’s year, not a season where the Cats had three losses by mid-December even if they were all to ranked teams.
Perhaps there was just way too much hype for a UK team that added nine freshmen, including six McDonald’s All-Americans. Fans openly talked of a 40-0 season. Calipari didn’t discourage that talk by indicating one day he would like to coach an undefeated team and fans took that to mean he thought it could happen this year without remembering that his national championship team from two years ago lost twice.
“I understood Cal to be talking about wanting to some day coach a 40-0 team, not that he was predicting that for this group. I may be wrong there,” Bilas said.
“To suggest that any team in today’s game will go 40-0 is a bit silly. It hasn’t been done since 1976, and it is highly unlikely. It’s a nice goal, but totally unrealistic,” Bilas said.
But was there too much hype for this team?
“I’m not sure what that means anymore. This is pro sports in every way except the players getting their fair share, and the NCAA has sold every nook and cranny of the game, so no amount of hype ever surprises me,” Bilas said. “This is the game we created, and the powers that rule the game keep selling it. Clearly, they don’t mind the hype. It has made us all a lot of money.”
True and the Big Blue turnstiles will be turning Saturday with passionate UK fans waiting to cheer for the Cats and against the Cards. However, Bilas isn’t sure the home court edge is that big for this game.
“It is always better to play at home. The home team usually plays with more assertiveness in front of the home crowd,” Bilas said. “But, it won’t be the difference in the game. I have never once heard a coach say after a home loss, ‘The crowd wasn’t very good tonight. That was the difference, and why we lost.’”
For Kentucky, playing a consistent 40 minutes against a top team — something it didn’t do in losses to Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina — could be the key.
“For such a young team, every practice and film session is important,” Bilas said. “This game is another step in the collective maturation of this team. UK can take a big step forward in a loss, too. The key is how they play, not whether they win this one game.
“And, yes, I have seen some progress. But it has been two steps forward, one step back. This is not going to be figured out overnight. But John Calipari is one of the best coaches in the game. He’ll help them figure it out.”
Bilas has not been shocked by UK’s struggles.
“Louisville is older, more experienced and better defensively. Kentucky is painfully young, and the players are going through this individually rather than together,” Bilas said. “That is not a slap at them because almost every freshman goes through adversity, but most freshmen do it with experience around them to lighten the load.
“Kentucky’s struggles with togetherness are not unusual. It was unusual that the 2012 team didn’t seem to have similar struggles, and figured things out quicker. But that team also had veteran leadership to assist in practice, the locker room and on the bench.”