LEXINGTON, Ky. — Top-ranked Kentucky has been so dominant that discussion has shifted toward whether the Wildcats are capable of going unbeaten.
Kentucky’s players acknowledge the lofty talk even as they try to tune it out, especially since they still have to clear No. 4 Louisville (11-0) in Saturday’s annual battle for Bluegrass State bragging rights.
Beating the Wildcats’ deep platoon system will be a tall task for the Cardinals, who have lost six of seven in the series. Kentucky (12-0) has won by an average margin of 29 points this season and beaten three ranked foes by 19.3 points.
The Wildcats expect things to be more challenging in their first true road game as Louisville aims to end a two-game slide against its archrival.
“It’s kind of hard not to hear it,” Kentucky 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein said of the chatter. “It’s just whether you take it in or not. I’ve been in this little game for a long time, it feels like, and the college game is so different. One game you can be really good; one game you can be really bad. And it’s just the draw of the day.”
Louisville will come in at full strength for the sold-out game at the KFC Yum! Center.
Junior forward Montrezl Harrell (16.7 points, 10.0 rebounds) returns from a one-game suspension after an ejection last week at Western Kentucky, bolstering a Cardinals frontcourt that will have its hands full against Cauley-Stein and four other Wildcats at least 6-foot-9 — a key reason Kentucky has blocked a nation-best 104 shots.
Louisville also has its share of height with 6-8 Harrell, 6-10 forwards Mangok Mathiang and Chinanu Onuaku and 7-foot freshman Anas Mahmoud. And the Cardinals aren’t far behind Kentucky in several defensive categories — they’re sixth with 7.2 blocks per game.
That will be crucial against a Kentucky squad that has thrived by wearing down opponents with waves of size and talent.
“We know what they’re all about,” Louisville forward Wayne Blackshear said. “We just have to rebound, stop them from getting on the glass. That’s the main point right there.”
For Harrell, that means keeping his cool in what could be a long day.
“I know I’m going to have to play almost 40 minutes in this game,” Harrell said after watching Tuesday night’s 80-55 victory over Cal State Northridge from the bench in street clothes. “I’m kind of like the heart and soul of our team. I’ve got to pick and choose plays the smart way.”
Kentucky comes in well-rested after last Saturday’s 83-44 shellacking of UCLA that boosted expectations even higher. If nothing else, a few days spent at home helped players recharge after a demanding schedule they handled well, especially against ranked teams such as Kansas, Texas and North Carolina.
Kentucky coach John Calipari believes Louisville’s physical style presents a different challenge for his team and has emphasized the Wildcats’ needs to take and give punishment.
“It’s like any team we play,” Calipari said. “Teams are going to come after us. They’re going to be physical. Teams don’t surrender. They’re going to do what they have to do.”
While there figures to be some blue-clad Kentucky fans in the house, they’ll likely be drowned out by many more spectators dressed in Cardinals red, yelling their loudest to throw off the Wildcats’ rhythm.
“That makes it fun,” Kentucky guard Andrew Harrison said. “That makes it worth your while. A lot of the young kids haven’t really been in an environment like this or been in a very close game like we’re going to be in on Saturday. It’s a great test for us, and we want to see where we’re at.”