Mack vs. WKU

Louisville head coach Chris Mack, center, instructs his team during a timeout in their game against Western Kentucky at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky. on Dec. 1, 2020.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- When it comes to its rivalry game with the University of Kentucky, for the Louisville men’s basketball team, the problem has been one of length.

Yes, there is what one might call a mental block where the Wildcats are concerned. That can happen when you’ve lost eight of the past nine and 11 of the past 13 in a series. Certainly, in some years, Louisville teams that should’ve beaten Kentucky, or been more competitive, came up short, and some of it may have been due to some kind of psychological deal. Who knows?

If ever there were a year to stop the skid, one in which you Kentucky in the midst of a five-game losing streak would seem to be a contender. But Louisville coaches and players aren't talking much about history — recent or otherwise — in preparing for this one.

I do know this. Most years, Louisville has come away from the annual installment of the rivalry game thinking that it missed shots that it normally makes and that it didn’t have the kind of offensive success that it generally has.

And I would give this reason: Kentucky has, in most years, been the longer, more athletic team. It has had the bigger guards. It has made every three-point shot just a bit more difficult than it usually is. It has made every pass just a little tougher. It has made every drive to the basket more daunting.

A guy like Russ Smith didn’t care. He was used to taking on bigger, longer guys and just did his thing. There are not a lot of Russ Smiths out there.

On Saturday, when Kentucky comes to the KFC Yum! Center, Louisville will have an edge in experience. But once again, the Wildcats will have an edge in size and in length. Their starting lineup is, in total, a foot taller.

Kentucky’s struggles are well-documented, and Louisville head coach Chris Mack knows all about them. But he also knows that Wildcats head coach John Calipari is a master of flipping the script for his team, and he knows that the length his team will face is something it will have to deal with successfully if it wants to end a three-game losing streak in the rivalry.

“I'm expecting a team that plays extremely hard on the defensive end, is long and athletic, that makes some mistakes but makes up for them by deflecting passes and blocking shots and playing with a ton of effort,” Mack said Thursday. “That's what I'm expecting.”

Think about the storyline a year ago: Kentucky had lost back-to-back games in Las Vegas. But Kentucky’s length at guard — particularly Tyrese Maxey — and 7-footer Nick Richards inside were matchups that Louisville, in the end, didn’t have enough answers for.

The encouraging thing from that game for Louisville is that it got a bad night from its top scorer — Jordan Nwora — but got solid point guard play from its graduate transfer point guard, Fresh Kimble, and some hard-nosed play from others, including Steven Enoch and Dwayne Sutton, to battle to a regulation tie on an off night.

Unfortunately, none of those players are around this season for the Cardinals. And against the biggest team they’ve faced thus far — Wisconsin — Louisville was dominated, albeit without graduate point guard Carlik Jones. Though there would be few takers on Kentucky making even half as many three-point shots as Wisconsin did in that game (16).

Louisville should be able to look at some of the less-rangy teams that have beaten Kentucky this year and see a blueprint for victory. Forward Samuell Williamson needs to put in a big game on both ends. As does guard David Johnson.

Louisville has an edge in experience, but Mack wondered Thursday if that isn’t a bit overplayed.

“I don't know if we have that much experience,” he said. “David played 57 seconds last year and gave up a 3 in our zone, and Carlik has never played Kentucky. Certainly, I've got older players, and they're going to have to make experience-type plays for us to win, and we expect them to. David has to cut down on his turnovers — our whole team does — the careless ones we have where we step out of bounds. I checked after the game, and the court was regulation at Pitt. They didn't put down high school lines and we just didn't recognize that. It was a regulation court, and we stepped out three times. I've never seen that before, so hopefully that was an exception.”

One weapon that worries Calipari is Louisville’s ability to step in and take charges. Mack said that could be a key.

“I think we have to keep them as best we can out of the open court, and that goes hand-in-hand with how you're taking care of the basketball, what kind of offense are you running that leads to predictable shots for us so we can have good floor balance, offensive rebound and at the same time not let them get out in the open court,” he said. “Then we have to make sure that we keep individual matchups and challenges in front of us as best we can, because they have elite bursts with the ball, and we need to be able to step in and take charges.”

As it always must when playing Kentucky, Louisville must have a plan to deal with the Wildcats’ shot-blockers and for getting inside-out baskets, and it must keep Kentucky off the offensive glass.

It's a tricky game for a team that did everything that was asked of it in getting off to a 4-0 start, including good wins over Seton Hall and Western Kentucky. It certainly hasn’t looked fully recovered from a 10-day COVID-19 hiatus in the first two games back, but is a slight favorite for Saturday’s game.

Mack said he wishes the game could be a bigger spectacle — only a small number of fans will be in attendance on Saturday because of COVID-19 restrictions — but said the players still understand the rivalry’s magnitude.

“I think our players, and quite honestly, their players, you know about this game if you follow college basketball at all,” he said. “It's part of the reason you came to a place like Louisville or Kentucky is because you want to play in games people watch all around the country, people have an interest in. So that's not going to change what happens between the lines. I'm disappointed for both fan bases. There's a lot to be disappointed about, not just in sporting events but just how we've all had to live over the last 8-9 months. We all understand. That's why we're doing a Zoom call today. But it's an adjustment. I've said it before: If it was only one team or one program that had to make an adjustment and everybody else got to play differently, then it would be unfair. But that's not the case.”

Jones said Louisville’s players are aware of the rivalry’s importance but won’t change their approach to the game.

“We know about it — Kentucky winning in the last few — but we don't, I wouldn’t say we talk about it a lot,” Jones said. “I know we want to win. I know we're going to prepare for it, be ready for, but I don't think we really talk about it much as far as that. We just want to win, and I know that we will be ready.”

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