Lost in the hype of the Kentucky-Louisville game is some significant progress the Wildcats made just before the holiday break.
After a month of relative displeasure, John Calipari was genuinely pleased with the progress the Cats made following the Marshall game. The only problem was the improvement was halted by a three-day break for Christmas that Coach Cal has always given his team.
“We take Christmas off because I want to be with my family, so everybody goes home,” Calipari said. “But it’s also a good time for us all to get away from each other.”
The time off came after two weeks of Camp Cal in which the Cats practiced two to three times a day, conditioned and focused strictly on basketball.
“I would say we needed a couple days off,” freshman guard Archie Goodwin said. “At the same time, we would still have been ready even if we didn’t have that break off. I think we would have still been pretty good.”
Although the break temporarily halted their progress, Calipari wasn’t inspiring them to just sit around and eat Christmas cookies during their time off.
“What we do tell them is you need to make sure you try to work out,” Calipari said. “It’s not going to be like you’re at practice but you’re going to do some conditioning or shooting or something.”
The Cats heeded his advice. Word got out that Ryan Harrow worked out at home on his first day of Christmas break, and Alex Poythress was seen at a gym in his hometown putting in two hours on Christmas Eve.
What: No. RV/23 UK (8-3) vs. No. 4/3 Louisville (11-1)
When: Saturday, 4 p.m. ET
Where: KFC Yum! Center (22,000)
Game notes: UK | Louisville
Pregame feature: Cats say the understand magnitude of rivalry
Pregame feature: How Cats handle U of L’s defense could determine outcome
Video interviews: Cal, Noel, Goodwin and Polson
Head coach: Rick Pitino (286-107 at Louisville)
Conference: Big East
Player to watch: Peyton Siva (11.4 points, 6.3 assists)
Series history: UK leads 30-14
Last meeting: UK won 69-61 in the 2012 Final Four
The personal work showed in the Cats’ ability to jump right back into things when they returned to practice Wednesday evening.
“I think (Coach) was really happy with how we came back,” junior guard Jarrod Polson said. “Our practices have been good since then.”
If UK did indeed pick up where it left off Saturday, that could be bad news for Saturday’s favorite, Louisville. Rick Pitino said he’s noticed a significant change in the Cats recently.
“I think they have dramatically improved the last two weeks from where they were,” Pitino said. “I think that their passing has improved, their defense has improved, their offensive half-court execution has improved.”
Dieng returns just in time
For the first time since Nov. 23, 6-foot-11 center Gorgui Dieng will play for Louisville when the Cardinals take on the Cats. Dieng has missed the last month with an injured left wrist.
Pitino had said just a few weeks earlier that Dieng wouldn’t be back in time for the annual rivalry game, but word leaked out over the last week, which Pitino confirmed a few days ago, that Dieng would indeed make his return for the 2012 version of the Dream Game.
The curious timing raises the question: Was the return coincidence or planned all along?
“I want to make this clear: I’m not back because we’re playing Kentucky,” Dieng said, according to reports from Louisville. “I’m back because the doctor cleared me to play.”
Whether his return timetable was geared specifically for the Cats or not, it is yet another obstacle the Cats will have to deal with against a team that features some of the best pieces in the nation.
“I’ve known John a long time,” Pitino said. “He’s smart enough to know (Dieng was) going to play. … Do you think he’s not going to prepare for Gorgui? He wasn’t born yesterday.”
Dieng was one of the nation’s shot blockers last year and will give the Cardinals a much-needed protector around the basket, but Pitino said Friday that his big man is “behind the eight ball a little bit” on the defensive end.
“His conditioning’s terrific, his shooting is back to normal,” Pitino siad. “His defensive timing is the only thing he needs a little work with because he hasn’t done that at all.”
Dieng’s parents are making the trip from their home country of Senegal to watch him play basketball for the first time on U.S. soil.
“I told them, these two schools, they hate each other,” Dieng said. “The good thing is they don’t speak English.”
A must-win? ‘Are you kidding me?’
The nonconference schedule has not been kind to the Southeastern Conference.
The SEC was supposed to enjoy a strong season this year with the additions of Missouri and Texas A&M and the experience of some other teams, but the year has not gone as planned so far.
Evidence: over the last two Saturdays, the conference has only won nine of its 21 games over, including several less-than-flattering losses to mid-majors. There are also just two SEC teams – Florida and Missouri – ranked in both major polls.
“I don’t care what’s going on in the SEC,” Calipari said. “I don’t care what’s going on in the Big East. ‘Well, the Big East stinks. The SEC stinks. The ACC can stink.’ Everybody can stink. I really don’t care.”
The concern with the SEC’s first-half struggles pertains to the Cats because some analysts believe Kentucky needs a win over Louisville to strengthen its NCAA Tournament resume. With the calendar still showing 2012, Calipari scoffed at the notion.
“Are you kidding me?” Calipari said. “I’m worried about let’s get better. If we get better, that all takes care of itself. We’ll have enough good games that we’ll be fine.”
Pitino nearly laughed when a reporter asked if Kentucky “needed” Saturday’s game.
“They don’t need a resume-(building win),” Pitino said. “They’re going to be an NCAA (Tournament) team. They’re going to be a high seed. They’re going to be one of the strongest teams in the SEC, Florida and Kentucky. So no, they don’t need this game. Just make sure you tell John that.”
Blue gets in
For a coach that’s played on both ends of the rivalry, Pitino pointed out a unique difference from the fans of UK and Louisville.
“You know, the only difference I see in the game is, every year … I would feel there were 3,000 to 5,000 Kentucky fans in Freedom Hall, in the Yum! Center. Blue all over the place.”
Louisville’s administration wasn’t pleased that a chunk of U of L fans gave up their seats to Kentucky fans a couple years ago. There’s no telling how much blue will dot the Yum! Center on Saturday, but Pitino wasn’t bothered by it, noting that it’s a much bigger sin to a UK fan to give up tickets than a Louisville fan.
“That’s the only difference I see,” Pitino said. “They infiltrate our arena. We don’t infiltrate their arena.”
Hood out for Saturday
Jon Hood will miss his second straight game Saturday with what has been described as an upper-respiratory infection. Calipari said Hood is still contagious.
“We’ve kept him away from the team because I don’t want anybody else catching it,” Calipari said. “We got a couple other guys that have got some colds now, so we just tried to tell him, ‘Stay away until you’re healthy where nothing is contagious.’ ”