CRAWFORD | Louisville players say top-ranked Kentucky presents ' - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Louisville players say top-ranked Kentucky presents 'moment of truth'

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — On the way back from their win at Western Kentucky, the University of Louisville basketball players talked on the bus. There was the usual mixture of cutting up, watching TV, disappearing into headphones and sleeping.

Over all that din, on the satellite televisions, played a basketball game. The University of Kentucky jumped on UCLA 11-0. Then 24-0. At halftime the top-ranked Wildcats led 41-7. Many of the Cardinals watched. A few, like All-American forward Montrezl Harrell, dozed off.

But after dispatching Cal-State Northride on Tuesday night, all of them said they were aware of the challenge ahead.

“As a competitor you always want to play somebody who is on the top, and right now, they are at the top,” U of L sophomore Mangok Mathiang said. “Everybody is excited. We've been waiting for this game almost all season. It's a moment of truth.”

CRAWFORD | Pitino calls UK 'one of the better teams I've witnessed'

Words on the Wildcats have come out in dribbles over the past couple of weeks from the U of L program, but there has been no long discourse. U of L coach Rick Pitino, on his radio show, said that the Wildcats, along with Duke, were in a class by themselves in college basketball this season.

The official marching orders for UK hadn't been given when the U of L players were last available to talk about Saturday's rivalry game. But the first order of business already had been proclaimed by Pitino: rebounding.

Kentucky rebounds 45.2 percent of its missed shots, second-best in the nation, according to college hoops stats guru Ken Pomeroy. U of L pulls down 40.2 percent of its misses, 12th best in the nation. If there is one statistical category in U of L's favor in this game, that is where it lies. UK rebounds only 33.5 percent of its opponents misses, 250th in the nation.

Perhaps that's a door Pitino will try to have his team charge through. He already has been sounding the theme, and the players picked up on it.

“We know they're a great team,” U of L junior Montrezl Harrell said. “We know they rebound the ball really well. We know a lot about them and we know it's going to be a tough game to play.”

Asked if Pitino putting a premium on rebounding added any pressure to him, Harrell said: “It doesn't. That's what I do when I come into the game, so it doesn't add any pressure to have to do things that I already do.”

One thing both teams do well is defend. Pomeroy rates U of L No. 1 in the nation in defensive efficiency. He rates UK No. 2.  UK blocks a higher percentage of its opponents shots than any team in the nation. U of L ranks fourth in block percentage. Both teams also rank in the top six nationally in NOT getting their own shots blocked.

Every U of L player said that the preparation will not differ for their team. They will stress the same things they generally do — defense and rebounding.

“We try to go out and take everybody out of everything they're trying to run,” Mathiang said. “That doesn't change for this game. We'll prepare for them just like we prepare for everybody else. But we have to be a lot more focused. A lot more. Those guys are very good. . . . They're a really big team. We're a really big team, too. Their main focus is rebounding, our main focus is deflections and causing disruptions.”

Harrell said that to win, the Cardinals are going to have to pick up their game offensively. Getting some points off the offensive glass would be a plus, but Harrell said the big offensive key would be ball security. UK ranks 22nd in the nation in steal percentage, while U of L's offense ranks 212th in the nation in having its pocket picked.

Giving up scoring opportunities, Harrell said, is a good recipe for defeat.

“Offensively we have a few things to work out,” he said. “We need to work on our passing. We're playing too careless with the ball right now. Taking care of the ball is the biggest thing we've got to do.”

Wayne Blackshear is getting ready for his sixth game against the Wildcats. He has become the Cardinals' best three-point threat, but has yet to knock down the long-range shot consistently. He's made 21 threes, but is shooting just 29.6 percent from beyond the arc.

Conventional wisdom says that to beat Kentucky, you have to make significantly more three-pointers than the Wildcats. Pitino disagreed with that, as did Blackshear.

“It's not just that,” Blackshear said. “Anybody can be beaten. There are different ways to win. But if the three ball is falling, that's a plus.”

Of all the things being said about this game, one prominent theme is that U of L may represent the last, best hope for anyone in the nation to beat the Wildcats during the regular season, as dominant as the Wildcats have looked. U of L players said that hasn't been something they've thought about.

“We're going to treat this game like another basketball game,” Harrell said. “We're not going to get in mind of the rivalry. We know the history, but it's not more important than getting ready for this game. We can't say, ‘Oh this is UK and Louisville.' At the end of the day it's a basketball game. We have to prepare to win.”

Blackshear said: “We know where they stand. We know where we stand. We don't care about any of those things. We just go out and play each game. . . . It's big rivalry, and we definitely want to win. A lot of us already know what this is all about. The fans love it and they'll blow it up like they always do. It's a good game for us to have right now. You want to play these type of games. You want to play against the best, and right now they're playing the best basketball in the country. We've seen a couple of games on them. We know what they're all about.”

U of L walk-on David Levitch summed up the Wildcats: “Big. Block shots. Athletic. Pretty much everything. I expect it to be the toughest game we've played. They're a great team. Everybody saw them against UCLA. We've just got to really be sharp in our preparation.”

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