December meeting won't matter now
Earlier matchup won't tell the story for Cards, 'Cats on Saturday.
As soon as I turned onto the I-75 South ramp, I started scanning the radio for local sports talk.
It was Dec. 31, midmorning, and I was leaving my hotel on the south bank of the Ohio River to drive the hour and change to Lexington, Ky.
The Louisville Cardinals were making a similar trip that weekend, heading down to the lion's den, Rupp Arena, to face off against Kentucky and its fans inside the beating heart of Big Blue Nation. I always listen to local sports radio when I'm out covering a game.
Sometimes, it's just because I like radio. On New Year's Eve, I wanted more: I was getting ready to view one of the nation's best hoops rivalries -- arguably the best, if we're awarding points for sheer out-and-out hate -- and I wanted to get a quick glimpse of the atmosphere I was barreling toward.
I was amped. No. 4-ranked Louisville visits No. 3-ranked Kentucky in Rupp? This was going to be epic.
The game I saw was slightly less than that.
Ostensibly, this was a matchup between two top-five teams, but everyone knew the score: Kentucky was too big, too athletic, too talented, too good, and Louisville, for all its pluck, wasn't really the fourth-best team in the country. The Cardinals would have to find some way to make this game an ugly, grind-it-out affair, and for much of the first half, that strategy worked: Kentucky forward Anthony Davis had to sit much of the first half with two fouls, and when he did, Louisville cut a 31-16 deficit to just 36-33 UK at the half.
But Davis returned in the second, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (24 points, 19 rebounds) was brilliant in his absence, and despite a 30-point effort from Russ Smith, the Cardinals fell to a Kentucky team that locked down on defense, contested every shot and ripped the life out of the game in its trudging but dominant march to a second-half win.
I remember thinking: If Smith is getting you 30 points on the road and you don't win, you didn't deserve to win. I also remember thinking: Man, Kidd-Gilchrist is good. And also: Davis is a freak.
That was the second time I had seen Davis live -- the first was at this past summer's Nike Skills Camps in Chicago -- but it was the first time I had seen him play live against actual, normal college basketball competition. He was impressive at the skills camp, especially considering the elite talents on hand (Jared Sullinger and Thomas Robinson, among others, were in the building that day, too) but those up-and-down ball-screen-heavy scrimmages aren't the real thing. Against a good-but-not-great team in Louisville, Davis was clearly a notch above. Any time Louisville guard Peyton Siva drove the paint, Davis was there; any shot that went unblocked was mangled beyond repair. Or at least it felt that way.
The game never found its flow. There were 51 fouls called that day, 29 of which came on Louisville. Again, this wasn't the worst strategy -- at the very least, Louisville needed to be punishing -- but besides Davis' foul trouble, Louisville forward Chane Behanan fouled out after just 15 minutes of play; Siva, center Gorgui Dieng and guard Kyle Kuric each ended the game with four. Some of that had to do with the late deficit, but much of it was just the nature of the game. It wasn't particularly well-played, Kentucky won in ho-hum fashion, and that was that.
So: What, if anything, does that tell us about Saturday's rematch?
Not much, I don't think. These two teams are both much-improved from the first meeting. Kentucky coach John Calipari has consciously slowed the pace of his team. Davis has expanded his game. Guard Marquis Teague has gone from a slightly erratic, turnover-prone liability to a driving, commanding perimeter force. In general, the Cats' offense is so much more fluid and tidy, with each of its pieces and sets -- flex handoffs here, standard screen-and-replace actions there -- benefiting from this stacked team's unified willingness to communally accept its respective roles.
And Louisville? This March Louisville isn't the Louisville we saw in December. It's not the Louisville we saw in February. The Cardinals closed their regular season with losses in four of their last six games, just before they went on the eight-game winning streak that earned them the Big East tournament title and an unlikely spot in the Final Four.
That's because this Louisville team is defending better than ever. It will enter Saturday with the nation's No. 1-ranked adjusted efficiency defense, per Ken Pomeroy. This defense is tricky and hard to read. It can go zone, as it did against Michigan State; it can go man, as it did against Florida; it can press to speed up the game; it can press to slow it down. More than anything, this squad is more capable of wearing teams out, of "getting into the legs," as coach Rick Pitino put it in Phoenix last week. The Cardinals' offense hasn't improved much. But the team as a whole, other than the names on the jerseys, couldn't be much different.
It's tempting to look back at December's first UK-UL edition and attempt to tease out some conclusions. If you go back and look at the video, there are probably some insights to be gleaned. But both teams are massively different entities than they were in December, as are Kansas and Ohio State. To take too much stock in what happened in Rupp Arena -- to say, "Louisville hung close on the road!" or, "Kentucky wasn't even that good yet, look out!" -- seems slightly beside the point.
In any case, I know this: That morning, when I flipped on the radio and soaked it all in (callers and radio hosts and fans of both sides going back and forth; it was great), I felt the rivalry seeping through the windows of my midsized sedan. And I thought that was intense. This Saturday, intense won't even begin to describe it.
Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work in the College Basketball Nation blog. To contact Eamonn, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or reach him on Twitter (@eamonnbrennan).
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