It's that time of year again, when shopping is a nightmare, ESPN runs Duke vs. (fill in name of also-ran) during finals weeks and the Cats square off against the hated Cardinals.
For the first time in a while, neither school comes into the game ranked. For fans of these two proud programs, such a state is met with much disapproval (and whining). But the circumstances surrounding the early part of the season for each is quite different.
Kentucky (6-3) has three losses, all to top-15 teams, including two of the top three (UNC, UCLA). The Cats are coming off a tough rivalry win over a gritty Indiana team, a victory that will most likely look better and better as the season progresses. The same could be said of 5-3 Louisville's most recent loss, to Travis Ford's UMass club. For all of Big Blue Nation's chuckling at the Cardinals' second loss to an A-10 school of the season (Dayton was the other), UMass will pose a similar threat to the Cats when it invades Rupp Arena barely less than a week from now. But that's for another time.
For Kentucky, the game is about beginning the climb back to national prominence. The fans love to focus on all the things wrong with the team, the things that no longer allow John Q. Braggart to post flaming messages on the UNC or Louisville Rivals board. But the coach and the players just want to build unity and a stingier defense.
Rick Pitino, meanwhile, is just trying to get his boys to play with passion and consistency throughout the game. Can't imagine the impetus to win won't be there today.
What to look for:
* Throwing it all away: Kentucky has fixed some of its early season problems. A lazy defense? Check. A poor shooting team? Sort of check (49% overall since Derrick Jasper has started two games). But turnovers are negating much of the Wildcats' positive momentum. Last week, two seperate 6-point leads in the second half were submarined by giveaways, allowing IU to get back into the game. Pitino's defensive pressure thrives on such turnovers.
* Gimme three: The Cardinals, while struggling this year, are still dangerous from behind the arc, as are all Pitino teams. The Cats have been up-and-down all year. Junior Joe Crawford has fallen in love with his jumper early at times, and when he's off it can kill the Cats' momentum. Ramel Bradley shot lights out against Charleston in his last visit to Freedom Hall, a little over a week ago. If Kentucky can hit 40% of their threes, they are a dangerous offensive team. Given that UL will double-trap on Randolph Morris all game, those guys are going to have to make shots. Freshman Jodie Meeks could be a big help off te bench if he can stick a few as well.
* Drama Class: It's Kentucky-Louisville. 'Nuff said. Ignore the lack of rankings, the lack of national hype, and the intensity will still be sky-high. The Cats must be able to withstand the high pressure runs that are bound to happen and stick to the gameplan of pounding it into Morris and playing lock-down defense.
Probable starting lineups
SG -- Ramel Bradley, Jr., Brooklyn, NY
3G -- Joe Crawford, Jr., Detroit, MI
PG -- Derrick Jasper, Fr., Paso Robles, CA
SF -- Bobby Perry, Sr., Durham, NC
C -- Randolph Morris, Jr., Atlanta, GA
F Perry Stevenson, F Sheray Thomas, C Lukasz Obrzut, G Jodie Meeks, G Michael Porter
PG -- Edgar Sosa, 6'1", Fr., 12.3 ppg
SG -- Brandon Jenkins, 6'3", Sr., 5.9 ppg
C -- David Padgett, 6'11", Jr., 7.3 ppg
SF -- Terrence Williams, 6'6", So., 12.3 ppg 7.6 rpg
F -- Juan Palacios, 6'8", Jr., 12.1 ppg 8.0 rpg
B. Gianiny, T. Farley, A. McGee
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