LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The University of Kentucky basketball team has headed home for the holidays. The University of Louisville remains sequestered -- albeit in Miami -- for another day of practice before adjourning.
The differing strategies are just one storyline in what has to be the most difficult-to-handicap meeting in their rivalry in some time. A few storylines to keep in mind before taking off for your own Christmas break:
1. PITINO'S PRACTICE SCHEDULE. Louisville coach Rick Pitino got his team out of town for the express reason of not having his players bombarded with the rivalry. He also said he was going to Miami to "strategize." Is this the right call?
"To be honest, we came down here to get away from the distractions," Pitino said. "The fact that nobody knows UK, nobody could care less about UK, and most people don't know where it is, it was great."
Will that make for a better preparation atmosphere? Or is it, in its own way, making the game too big a deal?
The U of L players will head home for Christmas on Monday, then will have Thursday and Friday for hard practices before UK on Saturday.
2. CAL SENDS THEM HOME. Like Pitino, Calipari is sending the team home for the holidays, but he turned his players loose immediately after they won on Saturday afternoon. When players return, they'll face the usual "Camp Cal," with no restrictions on practice time. At least one player, though, wonders how the young team will look when it gets back to campus.
"Worst scheduling ever," sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein said. "That's my opinion. To be away from your teammates and coaches for three days before a really big game. It's going to be big, but we'll see how it goes."
Cauley-Stein said the important thing will be for everyone to work out while they're at home, so that they're physically ready to return to practice. Did he work out at home as a freshman?
"No," Cauley-Stein said. "And if you're not ready when you get back, it's tough."
3. KENTUCKY'S SIZE. To me, this is the key factor in the game. UK's guards are not as experienced as U of L's, but they're not bad. U of L, however, would seem to have no answer for the sheer size of Kentucky, particularly Cauley-Stein and Julius Randle.
North Carolina shot 57 percent in the second half against Louisville. Kennedy Meeks was 5 of 6 and Brice Johnson 6 of 7. Both Randle and Cauley-Stein were 8 of 10 from the field against Belmont before taking off for Christmas.
Pitino's strategizing certainly needs to come up with a way to slow that kind of percentage. He figures to use zone, which pushes another couple of UK players into the forefront.
4. LOUISVILLE'S PRESSURE. The question about this game is what is going to win the day, Kentucky's size, or Louisville's pressure?
If the Cardinals can create out of their full-court pressure, forcing turnovers to turn into easy points without the looming shadow of Cauley-Stein or other UK shot-blockers, it could run away with things.
5. KENTUCKY SHOOTING. Nobody much talks about Aaron Harrison. He just goes about his business, making most of his shots and scoring loads of points. He's big enough to post up whoever U of L will have guarding him, and is skilled enough with the ball to get to the rim and score. He's a matchup problem for the Cards.
Pitino likely will find a way to deal with Randle. Dealing with Harrison is a little tougher. His strategy for Cauley-Stein will be interesting. And if James Young is making threes, it gets tougher still.
In fact, the three-spot period will be a telling matchup. Young has had big scoring games, he's also disappeared some. Ditto for Wayne Blackshear. Luke Hancock can make some threes. He's also been getting attacked by driving small forwards pretty relentlessly. Louisville doesn't have to win that matchup, but it can't get skunked.
6. LOUISVILLE SHOOTING. The Cardinals are coming off a game in which they made 13 three-pointers. Sometimes the game is simple. Just make shots. And UK has a tendency to give up open looks. If U of L passes well, it's going to get decent perimeter looks. Are the Cards going to be hot that day or not? That's anyone's guess. Russ Smith has had good games in Rupp Arena. He's scored 80 points in three games in the building. The Cards wouldn't mind seeing him hit that nearly 27-point average, but he has to do it efficiently. They need him hitting shots, but they also need him getting people involved. He's probably the key player for the Cardinals.
7. MY ADVICE TO KENTUCKY. In the game's first six minutes, do not attempt a three-pointer. Pound the ball inside. Give it to Cauley-Stein. Give it to Randle in the blocks -- not in the lane, he'll get stripped. Let Harrison drive and lob. Establish the inside. Let Louisville's bigs foul you. Neutralize them early. Shoot a high percentage from the tip. If UK does that, then even if U of L does make a bunch of shots of its own early, the game will be close, and the battle of attrition already will be working in the Wildcats' favor.
8. MY ADVICE TO LOUISVILLE. Bring your running shoes. You can't stand up and slug it out with UK's bigs, but you can apply strategic pressure on the ball and force the Wildcats' young players to make decisions faster than they want to. You can create discomfort with ball pressure and hope to turn it into transition offense. Also, give the ball to Montrezl Harrell. U of L can't win this game without mounting some kind of offensive presence inside. Its guards will get to the rim some. That happens. But they have to have something from their bigs. Against North Carolina, the guards panicked and began to take everything upon themselves. That can't happen against Kentucky. Harrell and Chane Behanan must be involved offensively in some way. Louisville has to find a way to be competitive defensively, to get its share of stops, but if it wins, this probably will be a game it has to win with offense.
9. CALIPARI ON THE CARDS. Calipari had some interesting comments about the Cardinals after the Belmont win on Saturday.
"They play extremely hard, way harder than we've played, like way harder. And again, they're a Final Four, national championship team ‑‑ those guys are back. They know how hard to play; they're not rattled late, all the things that this team is still learning about. Three games, we lose. Three minutes to go, it's a one‑point game, and we don't win any of them, and not only don't we win any of them, almost lose double digits in each of them. . . . So we have a lot of learning to do, and that's the next one."
10. THE PICK. No way am I ready to make that. I've said, I think it's crazy to pick against a Kentucky team this talented in Rupp Arena. In fact, I can see this UK team putting together a complete effort and winning by double digits. I've also been at many of these Cleveland State and Belmont games where the Wildcats couldn't land a knockout punch. I can see them losing by double-digits, too. I'm going to have to give this one a little more thought.
11. THE STAKES. Neither team has much of a conference schedule in front of it. That's going to make a No. 1 seed a longshot for the loser -- and it may already be a longshot for the winner. But don't forget this: Nobody else is dominating, either. There are going to be plenty of slots up for grabs. In that sense, the game is big, but not a make-or-break game. There's time for either or both to put together a run. Championships aren't won in December. But in this state, bragging rights sure are.
12. CELEBRATE THE SEASON. Think about this. The last two national championships will be represented when these teams meet on Saturday. I wish they'd put both trophies at center court when they play My Old Kentucky home. Regardless, it's been as remarkable a two years as this rivalry has ever seen. And it isn't finished. Both of these teams figure to have unfinished business, regardless of what happens this week.