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King in Kentucky: Cats prepare for a big one

12/2/2011

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The way Kentucky coach John Calipari sees it, nothing negative can come out of Saturday’s game against North Carolina.

A victory would be a huge momentum builder for the Wildcats. A loss, Calipari said, could serve as a learning tool.

“Until [we] get knocked in the mouth -- until [we] understand we can’t play the way we’re playing right now -- [we’re] not going to grow,” he said.

Nearly 30 NBA scouts and front-office personnel will be at Rupp Arena for Saturday’s game, which pits top-ranked Kentucky against the No. 5 Tar Heels. North Carolina opened the season atop the polls before being knocked off its perch after last week’s loss to UNLV.

“I like being on top,” UK guard Doron Lamb said. “I like everyone trying to catch us, trying to beat us.”

Here are a few other notes and quotes from Kentucky heading into Saturday’s game. For more on the North Carolina side of things, check out my colleague Robbi Pickeral's coverage in the UNC blog.

Revenge: The Wildcats said they expect North Carolina’s players to have revenge on their minds when the two teams take the court. Kentucky advanced to the Final Four last season after defeating the Tar Heels in the Elite Eight.

“I know North Carolina wants to beat us so bad,” Lamb said. “We beat them last year and took their spot [in the Final Four]. I know they’re upset. They think they’re the best team in the country, and we think the same the way. We have to go out there and prove to them that we’re the best team.”

Lamb also said he thinks his team is more talented than North Carolina. Teammate Terrence Jones stopped short of making such a statement. “I think it’s even,” Jones said.

The future is now: Rarely will you see a game involving this much future NBA talent. Nine of the top 30 players on ESPN analyst Chad Ford’s NBA draft boardInsider will take the court Saturday.

“[Scouts] are looking for guys who make other players better,” Calipari said. “They can play but they make other players better. If a guy is playing for himself, it just stands out in a game like this. They'll be looking for who is feeling the game and making their teammates better.”

Kentucky standout Anthony Davis is projected as the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NBA draft. Davis, though, is a freshman who will be playing in the biggest game of his career to date. The same thing goes for teammates Marquis Teague and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. North Carolina is led by sophomores, juniors and seniors.

“They’re a seasoned team that played their best ball down the stretch last season, and they’re all back," Calipari said. "They’ve added some great pieces, a little bit of size and some great shooting. They’re an outstanding team. Are we good enough to compete with them? We’re going to see.”

Bright lights: Calipari said he’s not worried about his freshmen crumbling under such a big spotlight.

“We played Kansas in the Garden,” he said. “It looked like a Final Four venue. Look, we're as ready as we need to be for this kind of game. I'm not sweating it. We're not changing a whole lot. I doubt if they change a whole lot. We're going to find out where their team is and where our team is. That's what this will be.”

End of the line? Saturday’s game will mark the 12th consecutive meeting between the Tar Heels and Wildcats. But with the SEC and ACC set to expand, there’s a chance each school will have to drop a few nonconference games.

“I'm hoping our league stays at 16 games,” Calipari said. “If the league stays at 16 games, it's easy; it's an easy decision. [UNC coach] Roy [Williams] and I have talked. Both of us still want to play the series and know it's important for both programs, but you know, there's only so many games you can play. And when they start adding league games and then you've got these made-for-TV games and then you've got the Big East Challenge. ... We're one of those teams that has locked into a certain number of games per year, and we're one of the very, very few that do that. But we'll see. We still may be playing it.”

Kentucky beat writer Kyle Tucker of the Louisville Courier-Journal reports that Saturday’s game will mark just the 12th time in the regular season over the past 30 years that Kentucky has been involved in a matchup of top-five teams -- and the first since 2003. Of those previous 11 in the past three decades, only four have been in Rupp Arena. The last time the venue played host to a top-five game was 1998, when No. 5 Kentucky defeated No. 2 Maryland.