INDIANAPOLIS — When Kentucky and Louisville met at Rupp Arena for an annual showdown Dec. 28, the Wildcats left with state bragging rights.
Three months later, both teams care more about tournament triumph.
“It’s much bigger than a rivalry,” Louisville senior guard Russ Smith said Thursday. “It’s a Sweet 16 game. You just want to get to the next round. The goal is to get to the Elite Eight.”
The teams meet in NCAA tournament play for the sixth time Friday, with Kentucky holding a 3-2 edge entering the game at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The winner will advance to play the winner between second-seeded Michigan and 11th-seeded Tennessee.
While the history between the coaches and the fans’ distaste for each other casts the game into a must-see event, the evolution of both teams since their first meeting makes it more intriguing.
“They’re a much better team today,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said, “and we’re a much better basketball team today.”
Fourth-seeded Louisville has the speed and experience edge. Eighth-seeded Kentucky has the imposing size advantage.
That hasn’t changed since Kentucky beat the Cardinals 73-66, dominating paint scoring and rebounding.
But Kentucky is a team that has matured throughout the season with its five starting freshmen.
“I mean, we hadn’t really defined the roles because we hadn’t really figured each other out,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “And I wasn’t real specific on how we were going to have to play. Now I come back to maybe they weren’t ready to accept it two months ago. Then we did something, another little thing that I wish I had done two months earlier before the NCAA tournament. Now we’ve tried one more thing for this weekend.”
He didn’t elaborate on the “tweaks” as he has called them, but the Wildcats looked impressive in the first weekend of the tournament, knocking off ninth-seeded Kansas State and top-seeded Wichita State.
In the first meeting, freshman forward Julius Randle scored 17 points in the first half before leaving four minutes into the second half with leg cramps. That issue has subsided but his presence is still a concern after 22 double-doubles this season.
His plan this time against the Cardinals?
“Do what we have been doing all season by posting the ball on our opportunities,” he said.
Louisville, the defending tournament champion, is a different team as well.
“We were struggling to find an identity at that point,” senior Luke Hancock said. “A lot of changes to our team since then for the better. Guys are filling into their roles and know what they have to do make our team better.”
Forward Chane Behanan is no longer on the team. Hancock has moved into a starting role and, after averaging 7.8 points when they first played Kentucky, now is averaging 12.1 points per game while shooting 40 percent.
Forward Montrezl Harrell, who may be assigned to handle Randle, scored six points with four rebounds in the first meeting. He now averages 14 points and 8.4 rebounds per game.
The Cardinals’ matchup zone defense has been a factor as well.
“Guys are making their rotations when they’re supposed to be getting in there, boxing out when they’re supposed to be,” Hancock said. “Early on in the year, you just don’t make those rotations, and making those small extra plays (like) staying tight when you’re supposed to be and really getting out on shooters. Just a bunch of little things to make our zone more impressive.”
Louisville (31-5) has won seven straight games. Kentucky (26-10) has won four of its last five, the only loss coming in the SEC championship by a point against top-ranked Florida.
Calipari bristled when the Wildcats’ regular season was described as a struggle. But that perception has helped them evolve, he said.
“It wasn’t disappointing, but that’s what they had to hear,” he said. “They had to hear how bad they were as players, how selfish they were, they’re not together. This isn’t a team. You can’t do this. This is what’s wrong. And instead of separating, they stuck together. They kept believing in one another.”
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