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Kentucky Surging, Cards Reeling On Eve Of Showdown

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Rick Pitino started the tradition years
ago, just to get a rise out of Kentucky equipment manager Bill
Keightley.
The day of the annual Louisville-Kentucky game, Pitino - then
the coach at Kentucky - would ask the man dubbed "Mr. Wildcat"
what the big deal was about the rivalry with the hated Cardinals.
Pitino would repeat the question over and over as the Wildcats
made the hour-long trip west to Freedom Hall. By the time they
arrived, Keightley, who died in March, would be in a frenzy.
"He'd stomp his hands and say, 'Son, you're from New York. You
just don't get it. You just don't get it. You don't understand,"'
Pitino said. "He'd go on and on and on and for years I thought the
Louisville people belonged in hell."
Pitino, now the coach of the 18th-ranked Cardinals, laughed
while telling the story. He certainly doesn't believe that of
"Louisville people" these days, though his underachieving team
has been in a purgatory of sorts heading into Sunday's showdown
with the surging Wildcats.
The Cardinals (8-3) began the year ranked third in the country
and were a popular Final Four pick, but probably need a win over
their archrivals just to stay in the polls. The latest
disappointment came in a 56-55 loss - at home - to undermanned UNLV
on New Year's Eve.
Not that Pitino is worried about Louisville's national standing.
With life in the brutal Big East starting next week, the Cardinals
need a victory just to restore a little bit of their swagger. That
they'll get their last chance to post a quality nonconference win
against Kentucky is almost beside the point.
"I'm more concerned about playing better basketball than who
we're playing right now," Pitino said. "Other years, it would be
different."
Louisville beat the Wildcats 89-75 in Rupp Arena last year, a
victory that propelled the Cardinals to a second-place finish in
the Big East and an eventual trip to the NCAA tournament regional
finals.
The game also proved to be the turning point in the season for
Kentucky, which rebounded to roll through the Southeastern
Conference and reach the NCAAs for the 17th straight year and make
coach Billy Gillispie's trying first season a modest success.
That turbulent winter suddenly seems like a long time ago.
The Wildcats have won six straight, but against mostly anonymous
foes. Even their biggest win this season - a 54-43 victory over
West Virginia in the Las Vegas Invitational - came after midnight
in front of a couple thousand fans in Sin City.
The Wildcats know a win on the road against the Cardinals on
national television could go a long way toward proving they're
back.
"We need this," said guard DeAndre Liggins. "We need to show
that we're a good team."
The Wildcats have certainly looked like one over the last three
weeks, playing at the kind of frenetic pace that used to be
Pitino's calling card when he was leading Kentucky to three Final
Fours and a national championship in the 1990s.
"I think we are getting more comfortable at understanding what
it is we are supposed to be doing," Gillispie said. "Tomorrow
will be a good test for us to see how well we play in a hostile
environment."
Guard Jodie Meeks is averaging 24.1 points a game while center
Patrick Patterson has become one of the most polished big men in
the country. Patterson is averaging 19.3 points and 9.4 rebounds
while making a remarkable 72 percent of his shots from the floor.
Not bad for a kid considered raw offensively coming out of high
school.
"I don't think there's anybody in the country that can guard
him one-on-one," Pitino said.
Louisville freshman center Samardo Samuels will likely get the
first shot. Samuels has played well if not spectacularly so far. He
was victimized by UNLV's Oscar Bellfield in the final seconds
Wednesday, as Bellfield beat Samuels to the basket for the
game-winning shot with 16 seconds remaining.
Pitino has refused to blame Samuels for Louisville's early
season struggles, saying his team's problems come from taking
contested shots from the perimeter and not trying to get the ball
into its precocious big man.
"He's doing as well as any freshman in the country in terms of
his performance with the basketball team," Pitino said. "He's a
freshman that has a lot to learn. ... You can't rush something.
Freshmen generally just need time to develop the fundamentals at
the collegiate level."
Time, however, is running out. Kentucky offers one last chance
to polish that nonconference resume, even if Pitino is careful not
to put too much emphasis on it.
"The thing we can't do is say this is the end-all," Pitino
said. "Last year we lost to some teams early in the year. The year
before we lost to some teams early in the year. But this time
around it's a lot more difficult than in those years. While the
competition then was keen, this year the competition is off the
charts."
Starting Sunday against a team that is eager to add a little
quality to its quantity.
"For us a win would be great," said Kentucky guard Michael
Porter. "It would be against a ranked team and, as far as the
rivalry is concerned, it would help us a lot mentally, especially
to get over last year."


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