LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Identity-building seems more important right now for No. 12 Kentucky and 16th-ranked archrival Louisville than claiming Bluegrass bragging rights.
The winner of Saturday’s annual showdown at Rupp Arena can take a big step in that process, along with giving their fan base something to feel good about entering conference play.
The talented and young Wildcats (9-2), replacing seven players who turned pro after last season, are still finding their way after opening No. 2 in the Top 25. They face an 11-1 Louisville squad with something to prove as well, and Kentucky junior guard Dominique Hawkins believes that beating another quality opponent provides more motivation than the rivalry.
“We know that they’re a great pressing team and I’m pretty sure that’s what we’re going to prepare for,” the Richmond, Kentucky, native said of the Cardinals. “It’s just another game and we’re just looking to win.”
While that may be underplaying it a little, if the Wildcats are going to come away with a victory, they’ll have to beat a Cardinals team that might be even hungrier than Ohio State. The Buckeyes were unfazed by Kentucky’s height and hype in their 74-67 win last week in Brooklyn, New York. Ohio State led throughout and withstood a second-half rally led by Jamal Murray’s 33-point explosion.
Impressive as Murray’s game was, Kentucky coach John Calipari seeks more offensive contributions. A presence in the middle will be needed on both ends against the quick, physical Cardinals.
As Kentucky works to establish continuity, its inside game could be helped this weekend with the recent addition of 6-foot-10, 255-pound forward Tai Wynyard from New Zealand. He has only had a couple of workouts and Calipari has been coy about whether he’ll play Saturday because he’s a work in progress — much like the Wildcats.
“We’ve got things that we’ve got to do,” Calipari said. “We’re still tweaking offensively exactly how we have to play. I saw some good stuff in the second half of that game (Ohio State). But, we’re a ways away.”
Louisville began the season unranked with a made-over roster of youngsters as well, but has quickly grown into a group looking to be competitive in the Atlantic Coast Conference and beyond.
The Cardinals enter the game leading the nation in scoring margin at plus-30.2 points per game and ranked sixth in field goal percentage (.519). Granted, their opponents have not all been the caliber of top-ranked Michigan State, but Louisville led that game on the road before the Spartans rallied in the final minutes for a 71-67 win.
But Louisville’s lopsided victories have provided young players valuable playing time and helped the Cardinals’ offense blossom enough to shoot above 50 percent nine times this year, one more than last season.
“Our confidence is pretty high,” said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, comparing his team’s docket to the alternative of a tougher schedule with such a young team.
Graduate transfers Damion Lee (17.3) and Trey Lewis have combined for nearly 32 points per game in the backcourt with sophomore guard Quentin Snider averaging 10 points. They’ll face Kentucky’s three-guard backcourt of Murray, Isaiah Briscoe and Tyler Ulis.
The game is a chance for Louisville to earn a signature win, against its biggest rival at that. The Cardinals also seek their first win at Rupp since 2008 and aim to end a three-game slide in a series Kentucky leads 33-15.
Though many of the young Cardinals may not fully grasp the magnitude of the rivalry, their fans have certainly reminded them of what beating Kentucky means to them. Players just hope it can provide something that helps down the road.
“We know how bad our campus wants this, how bad our fans want this game,” said Lewis, who’s averaging 14.7 points per game. “We’re going into this as some very tough competition (entering) the next stretch, so we don’t feed too much into the hype. But we know what this game means.”