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UK’s attention turns to Louisville for annual rivalry game

Perhaps it’s true that you’re only as good as your competition.

A domino effect, if you will, the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry has only intensified over the last couple of years as each program has experienced success. One program’s fortunes have fueled the other.

Kentucky won the national title in 2012 only to have Louisville come back last season with a championship of its own.  John Calipari responded right back by assembling one of the greatest recruiting classes of all-time, and though UK has suffered three losses to start this year, the Cats are still one of the favorites to cut down the nets.

Is it really so crazy to think that one rival’s success pushes the other to get better, that inspiration can come from competition?

Coach Cal admitted Saturday after the Belmont victory that what the Cardinals did as a follow-up act to UK’s latest national championship only served to motivate him and his staff to work harder.

John Calipari is 4-1 against Louisville as UK’s head coach, including the 2012 Final Four victory. (photo by Chris Reynolds)

“What (Rick Pitino) was doing at Louisville inspired us and me here,” said Calipari, who is 4-1 against U of L since coming to Kentucky. “We’d better work. We’d better get after this.”

Hard to believe given the heights it has reached over the years, the Bluegrass rivalry seems to be at an all-time high. Between the national championships the last two seasons, the recruiting success of both coaches and now the rankings to start this year, Dec. 28 is shaping up to be one of the classics in a series rich with memorable games.

Not that the players who actually play the game fully understand that.

Most of them out-of-state recruits and all too young to remember some of the tradition’s best moments, the majority of the Wildcats are oblivious to what Saturday will have in store for them at Rupp Arena.

“I don’t know if they understand it as much just because I’ve seen it in growing up, but at the same time they know it’s a huge game and they’re the type of players that show up well in big games,” said senior Jarrod Polson, a Kentucky native.

Sophomore forward Willie Cauley-Stein admitted he had no idea what to expect as a first-time participant in the rivalry a season ago.

“When you’re a freshman coming in, you don’t have the rivalry because really you don’t really know about Kentucky or Louisville,” Cauley-Stein said. “You’re stuck between five different schools that you’re thinking about going to, so until you’ve been here for a year or you’ve lived in the state you don’t know about the rivalry. It’s a problem. It really is because it’s so serious to people and if you don’t take it serious then you don’t care pretty much. That’s what they think, but you don’t really know about the rivalry.”

Of course, it’s not like they haven’t heard about the rivalry.

“Everywhere you go that’s all (the fans) talk about,” freshman forward Julius Randle said.

To succeed in a game like Saturday’s, Coach Cal said his players will have to learn quickly how to match Louisville’s effort.

“They play extremely hard, way harder than we’ve played,” Calipari said. “Like way harder. And again, they’re a Final Four, national championship team this year — those guys are back. They know how hard to play; they’re not rattled late, all the things that this team is still learning about.”

Though the first-year players may not understand the magnitude of the game, some of UK’s freshmen have produced some exceptional performances in the annual matchup since Coach Cal arrived at Kentucky.

In a losing effort at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville last season, Archie Goodwin had one of his best games in a UK uniform, scoring 22 points. In the regular-season game during the 2011-12 season, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist posted an eye-popping line of 24 points and 19 rebounds, while Anthony Davis added 18 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks. Brandon Knight had 25 points in his freshman rivalry game, and John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe combined for 47 points in the 2009 showdown.

It remains to be seen if Randle will be the next UK great to come up big in the rivalry game, but Randle is expecting a special environment.

“It’s just going to be a really high-energy game for us and for the fans,” Randle said. “This is the game they live for. This is probably the most important game for them other than the national championship game.”

UK will begin preparation for the Cardinals on Christmas night once the players return from a three-day break before the holidays.

Cauley-Stein wishes Louisville was somewhere else on the schedule because he thinks the break will have an effect on the quality of the game, but Calipari has always insisted his players spend some time with their families for the holidays.

“It would be nice to have a full week to prepare and scheme and stuff but it’s gonna be good,” Cauley-Stein said. “We haven’t been home for months so it’ll be good to step back and really evaluate yourself and come back fresh and ready to go.”

The countdown is on for Kentucky-Louisville.