“We understand what’s at stake,” Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said Thursday. “I’ve been in the state 20 years, and the game to me has really only had difficult consequences for the loser twice. Once was two years ago when they stopped our run in the Final Four, and [the second is] the next game we play.”
Kentucky-Louisville is one of college basketball’s great rivalries. But while fans in the state of Kentucky celebrate and weep over the results, to the players and coaches Friday’s meeting is just another Sweet 16 game. One team will win in Indianapolis and continue on the path toward a national title. The other will lose and go home.
“People grieve for a year after the game; people celebrate for a year after the game,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said. “Don’t make it bigger than it is, just play. That’s my message.”
Louisville-Kentucky is one of two Sweet 16 matchups that is a rematch of a regular season game. But don’t expect Louisville-Kentucky to look at all similar to the way it looked Dec. 28. Kentucky beat Louisville the first time around, and the Wildcats could win again. But both teams have experienced serious change in the last three months.
For Louisville, Luke Hancock had not been connecting on his usually deadly 3-point shot. Montrezl Harrel was still playing behind Chane Behanan, who eventually got kicked off the team. Only in January did Harrel start proving he could be a monster presence against all levels of competition. Newcomers Chris Jones, Terry Rozier and Mangok Mathiang were still learning Pitino’s offensive and defensive systems.
“I think we were struggling to find an identity at that point,” Hancock said. “I think guys are kind of filling into their roles and know what they have to do to make our team better.”
Kentucky’s personnel has remained the same, but over the past few weeks the Wildcats have grown from a borderline Top 25 club to a legitimate national title contender. Calipari’s group of freshmen and a few sophomores took No. 1 Florida to the wire in the SEC championship game. After holding off Kansas State in their first NCAA Tournament game, the Wildcats upset No. 1 seed Wichita State.
“We just have committed to each other on both ends of the floor,” freshman forward Julius Randle said. “Our chemistry is a lot better. And we’ve listened to Coach. He’s made our roles really simple.”
Understanding roles was key to Kentucky’s growth, just as Hancock said it was for Louisville’s. Calipari said he and the team had not defined or figured out roles during the course of the season.
“I wasn’t real specific on how we were going to have to play,” Calipari said. “And so I can’t blame an 18- [or] 19-year-old for that. That falls back on me. … We went into the conference tournament, and we started really gelling because we accepted roles and we did a better job.”
Media took shots at Kentucky all season long. The Wildcats are easy targets with such a youthful group. They start five freshman, all of whom were the stars of their high school teams. So criticizing these former high school stars for being selfish is an easy thing to do. And it was often true; during key moments of games, it seemed each player wanted the ball in his hands to make the big play.
But through dealing with the criticism, the Wildcats have grown into a more cohesive unit, Calipari said.
“I’m really proud of them that they stuck together,” Calipari said. “They had to hear how bad they were as players, how selfish they were. They had to deal with that. And instead of separating, they stuck together. They kept believing in one another. They kept believing in the staff and wanted answers, how do we get this right.”
And in terms of on-court experience, the Wildcats have matured as well.
“They’ve become sophomores. They’re not freshmen anymore,” Louisville senior Russ Smith said. “They’ve improved on their decision-making, getting into the lane. So their decision-making and their intelligence within their system has made strides. And that’s pretty impressive.”
Now, the Cardinals and the Wildcats get a “fresh game” with each other, as Kentucky sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein put it. And while chaos may ensue in the Bluegrass State, for the players it’s about 40 minutes on the hardwood.
“It is a rivalry game; there’s no way around it,” Smith said. “But at the end of the day, it’s much bigger than a rivalry. It’s a Sweet 16 game.”