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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."

No. 18 KENTUCKY (9-3)
Coach: John Calipari (132-29 in fifth season at Kentucky; 535-167 in 22nd season overall)
Last game: Beat Belmont 93-80
Roster | Stats
No. 6 LOUISVILLE (11-1)
Coach: Rick Pitino (321-112 in 13th season at Louisville; 675-240 in 29th season overall)
Last game: Beat FIU 85-56
Roster | Stats
Pos. Name Yr. Ht./Wt. PPG RPG
G Andrew Harrison Fr. 6-6/215 10.6 2.3
G Aaron Harrison Fr. 6-6/218 15.1 3.3
F Willie Cauley-Stein So. 7-0/244 9.3 8.0
F James Young Fr. 6-6/215 13.4 3.8
F Julius Randle Fr. 6-9/250 18.2 11.3
Pos. Name Yr. Ht./Wt. PPG RPG
G Terry Rozier Fr. 6-1/185 5.8 3.3
G Russ Smith Sr. 6-0/165 16.8 3.2
C Mangok Mathiang Fr. 6-10/210 5.0 4.7
F Montrezl Harrell So. 6-8/235 12.5 8.3
F Wayne Blackshear Jr. 6-5/230 10.3 3.0
Game/Series Information
Game Information
Site: Rupp Arena (23,000), Lexington, Ky.
TV: CBS (Jim Nantz play-by play, Greg Anthony analyst, Tracy Wolfson)
Radio: UK IMG Sports Network (Tom Leach play-by-play, Mike Pratt analyst, Matt Jones sideline); XM 91/Sirius 91
Internet: Audio | Video
Favorite: Pick-em

Series Information
Series record: Kentucky leads 30-15
At Lexington: Kentucky leads 16-5
Coaches' records: Calipari 10-6 vs. Louisville; Pitino 5-8 vs. Kentucky

Last meeting:Louisville 80, Kentucky 77 (Dec. 29, 2012, at Louisville)
The fourth-ranked Cardinals led by as many as 17 points before Archie Goodwin and Kyle Wiltjer helped spark a late Kentucky rally that gave the Wildcats a chance. Russ Smith scored 21 points -- including five of Louisville's final 13 -- to help the Cards hold off the Cats. Goodwin scored a game-high 22, and Ryan Harrow added 17 points for UK. Chane Behannan had 20 points and seven rebounds for U of L, which got 19 from Peyton Siva.

Game Storylines
1. Turnover Tales: Louisville leads the nation in turnover margin and +9.4 and ranks fourth in fewest turnovers, averaging 9.2 per game. Dating back to last season, the Cardinals have turned the ball over 10 or fewer times in 11 of their last 15 games. U of L averages 23 points per game off turnovers. Kentucky, meanwhile, averages 13 turnovers per game and is -2.5 per game in turnover margin.

2. Russ Arena: In his three career games at Rupp Arena -- a loss at Kentucky in 2011 and wins against North Carolina A&T and Colorado State in last season's NCAA Tournament -- Louisville guard Russ Smith is averaging 26.7 points and 4.3 steals per game on 52.9 percent shooting. He's 8 for 19 from three-point range in those games and scored at least 25 points in all three. Smith is averaging 16.8 points on 13.2 shots per game and is the sort of small, quick guard who's given Kentucky fits.

3. Game of Runs: In its first 12 games this season, Louisville has 32 runs of 8-0 or better. The Cardinals have forced opponents into 31 scoring droughts of three minutes or more. Sophomore Alex Poythress said he'll tell his freshman teammates to brace themselves for such stretches against Louisville. "Just slow down and be poised, really," Poythress said. "It's gonna be like this the whole game. Just be prepared for it."

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