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December 28, 2012There will be pressure for sure.
It'll be of the full-court variety, and Louisville will throw it at the Kentucky basketball team Saturday at the KFC Yum! Center. How the Wildcats (8-3) handle it could be key to the outcome of the annual Dream Game.
But there's another sort of pressure that comes with a rivalry game, and UK might be feeling less of that than in recent years against No. 4 Louisville (11-1).
The Cardinals are a 7.5-point favorite on Saturday. As of Friday, no national expert with an opinion had picked the Wildcats to win. It's a rarity, but for one afternoon at least, a John Calipari-coached Kentucky team is a legitimate underdog.
The Wildcats will face their highest-quality opponent since back-to-back losses at Notre Dame and at home to Baylor about a month ago. A UK win would, without question, be considered an upset.
"I definitely think that kind of motivates a little bit because no one thinks we can win the game," freshman Archie Goodwin said. "Any time that happens it motivates you a little extra more.
Goodwin called the underdog role "just a part of us losing early," but that's hardly the only reason the Cards are favored.
Louisville's only loss this season came at a neutral site against No. 1 Duke, a game the Cardinals played without center Gorgui Dieng, who will return Saturday from a wrist injury.
The Cards are beating their opponents by an average of 22.6 points per game. They lead the nation in turnover margin at +8.6 per game. Louisville's opponents commit 21.4 turnovers per game on average, and U of L converts those into 27 points per game.
"So this is a great challenge for us," Calipari said. "If you ask me, I would say what I'm seeing right now, you're talking about a team that should be or is the odds-on favorite to win the whole thing."
Louisville starts two juniors and a senior, has a point guard in Peyton Siva who has 85 career starts and features five players who played significant roles on last season's Final Four team, including Siva, Dieng, leading scorer Russ Smith and forward Chane Behanan.
And the Cards added freshman forward Montrezl Harrell - he considered Kentucky after receiving a release from his letter of intent at Virginia Tech - whom Calipari said could play has first-round NBA Draft talent.
It's a dramatically different makeup than Kentucky, which starts three freshmen and features only one player - sophomore Kyle Wiltjer - who played a major part for last season's NCAA champion.
"They are a well-oiled machine," Calipari said. "We are a work in progress."
Kentucky will find out just how much progress on Saturday.
The Cats have lost to the three best teams they've played this season - Duke, Notre Dame and Baylor - and were hammered in their only other true road game, against the Irish.
"We're more competitive, and we're more equipped for the game than we were (at Notre Dame)," Goodwin said. "That was just a time - maybe I'd say we were a little too proud, but now we've been humbled by those couple losses and it's paying off for us."
Since those losses, Kentucky's had the opportunity to make strides - literally and figuratively - at "Camp Cal," Calipari's boot-camp-style practice schedule over the holiday break.
The Cats say they've taken to heart the lessons of hard conditioning and frequent practices. They say they've gotten better.
Against Louisville, they'll find out.
The Cardinals are deep and physical. They "do a great job of trying to muck up the game," Calipari said, which makes execution more difficult but creates opportunities, Calipari said, for players to make individual plays.
"The score will take care of itself for us," Calipari said. "This thing is, 'All right, let's battle. Let's go after them. Let's see what we've worked on.'"
Calipari said Kentucky knows it has to see improvement. Louisville provides the chance. And it gives the Wildcats a chance to play the rare role of spoiler against its biggest rival.
Freshman Nerlens Noel said the Cats look forward for a chance to play in front of Louisville's fans and try to "pretty much mess up their whole day, their week or whatever."
"It is definitely pretty fun (to be the underdog)," Noel said, "but we're definitely looking forward to proving people wrong because we've been working very hard these past couple weeks."