LEXINGTON, Ky. – Top-ranked Kentucky has been so dominant that discussion has shifted toward whether the Wildcats are capable of going unbeaten.
Kentucky’s players acknowledge the lofty talk even as they try to tune it out, especially since they still have to clear fourth-ranked Louisville (11-0) in today’s annual battle for Bluegrass State bragging rights.
Beating the Wildcats’ deep platoon system will be a tall task for the Cardinals, who have lost six of seven in the series. Kentucky (12-0) has won by an average margin of 29 points this season and beaten three ranked foes by 19.3 points.
The Wildcats expect things to be more challenging and hostile in their first true road game as Louisville aims to end a two-game slide against its archrival.
“It’s kind of hard not to hear it,” Kentucky 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein said Friday of the chatter. “It’s just whether you take it in or not. I’ve been in this little game for a long time, it feels like, and the college game is so different. One game you can be really good, one game you can be really bad, and it’s just the draw of the day.”
Louisville will come in at full strength for the sold-out game at the KFC Yum! Center.
Junior forward Montrezl Harrell (16.7 points, 10.0 rebounds) returns from a one-game suspension after an ejection last week at Western Kentucky, bolstering a Cardinals frontcourt that will have its hands full against Cauley-Stein and four other Wildcats at least 6-foot-9 – a key reason Kentucky has blocked a nation-best 104 shots.
Louisville also has its share of height with 6-foot-8 Harrell, 6-foot-10 forwards Mangok Mathiang and Chinanu Onuaku and 7-foot freshman Anas Mahmoud. The Cardinals aren’t far behind Kentucky in several defensive categories – they’re sixth with 7.2 blocks per game.
That will be crucial against a Kentucky squad that thrives by wearing down opponents with waves of size and talent.
For Harrell, that means keeping his cool in what could be a long day.
“I know I’m going to have to play almost 40 minutes in this game,” Harrell said after watching Tuesday night’s 80-55 victory over Cal State Northridge from the bench in street clothes.
“I’m kind of like the heart and soul of our team. I’ve got to pick and choose plays the smart way.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari believes that Louisville’s physical style presents a different challenge for his team and has emphasized the Wildcats’ dual needs to take and give punishment.
“It’s like any team we play,” Calipari said. “Teams are going to come after us. They’re going to be physical.”
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