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December 27, 2013
Louisville gives Cats another crack at top-tier win
Forget the bragging rights. Forget the fans for whom it's larger than life.
For the Kentucky basketball team, Saturday's game against Louisville carries weight not because it's a Dream Game matchup with an in-state rival, but because it's an opportunity to get back on the map.
"We've got to prove that we can take on top teams," UK guard Dominique Hawkins said Friday. "We haven't beat a ranked team yet, so it would be a great improvement for us if we win this game."
The 18th-ranked Wildcats have had opportunities this season, falling short against Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina. But their chances in Southeastern Conference play will be limited -- only Florida and Missouri are ranked in this week's Top 25 -- and No. 6 Louisville represents UK's last, best chance at a high-end win in the nonconference.
Ranked No. 1 in the preseason, UK (9-3) has yet to show it belongs among college basketball's big boys.
"We just want to play like we have a chip on our shoulder," forward Alex Poythress said. "We want to show we're still here, we're still a great team. It's something that we've got a lot to prove."
Beating the Cardinals (11-1) would prove something.
Though U of L has played a soft schedule to date, the defending NCAA champs have a roster stocked with talent and experience. The Cards boast a guard in Russ Smith who figures to be among the toughest defensive challenges the Cats have faced thus far.
"They're well coached," UK coach John Calipari said. "They play hard. If they see weakness, they see blood, they're coming. Here they come. And they're a good team."
Maybe a great one. The Wildcats haven't beaten one of those yet.
Though Kentucky has wins against quality competition -- Boise State and Belmont figure to rack up wins in their conferences and be NCAA Tournament contenders -- it's yet to beat a team among the cream of the college crop.
The Cats fell in a big hole early against Michigan State, folded late against Baylor and couldn't make key plays down the stretch at North Carolina.
"It's pretty hard to beat those guys," Calipari said. "And obviously we're not -- three minutes to go in all those games, it's a one-point game and we were right there. We're not ready to win those games yet."
They get another shot on Saturday.
"We're trying to prove that we can play good competition with any team in the nation and stuff like that," Hawkins said. "If we get this win, there will be a lot of teams looking at us that we probably belong in the top 10 and stuff like that."
So far, Kentucky hasn't looked much like a top 10 team. Calipari admitted on Friday that his team isn't "what everybody" -- including he -- predicted it was to start the season.
"This is a team game," Calipari said. "It's not a collection (of players); it's a team game. And we weren't the kind of team -- we're only now beginning to be that kind of team."
The Cats "will get it," Calipari said, predicting that Kentucky will look like a different team by February. But the Louisville game won't wait.
"We'll see where we are against a top opponent," Calipari said. "We'll see, and we'll figure out from there where we got to go. Are we farther along than we thought? Maybe. Are we behind where we thought? Maybe. When you're talking about a team like this, it's more or less the progress and you just take steps along the way."