The Kentucky Wildcats - at least on the hardwood - are very, very good. They were put atop the rankings once again ahead of this season, and they haven't done much since then to persuade anyone otherwise. Their lineup is literally bigger than NBA lineups (no, they wouldn't beat any of them), they have the recruits, the wins/titles, etc. This year, they've comfortably won against all of the big-name opponents they've come up against. In most ways, Kentucky is college basketball's Goliath.
As we know, though, Louisville is far from David.
On Saturday, the Wildcats will visit the Derby City as slight favorites for the 48th iteration of one of the greatest rivalries in college sports. The Cardinals will be the fourth-ranked team in the country coming into the game, and they've had plenty of promising success this season despite roster turnover. Maybe it hasn't always been as convincing, but Louisville is undefeated all the same. Like Kentucky, the Cards' history on the hardwood speaks for itself.
Whenever these two teams meet, it's more fair to categorize the matchup as a battle of two titans, even if one seems to get a lot more nationwide love than the other.
Speaking of that love affair, everyone's heard of John Calipari's latest crop of superstar freshmen, Kentucky's platoons and the possibility that this Wildcat team could go undefeated. They're certainly good enough to win every game they play, and there's really no reason to debate that. Moreover, after Louisville, they won't play another team that's anywhere near as good as some of the teams they've already handled. We can table that discussion for later, though. It's rather obnoxious.
One of the most interesting things about this year's Louisville/Kentucky matchup is that the two teams will meet going in different directions. Kentucky has already played the hardest part of their schedule, and they have a weak SEC ahead of them for the remainder of the campaign. Still to come for Louisville after Kentucky are six games against teams currently ranked in the top 25 and the rest of a considerably stronger ACC schedule.
In all likelihood, Kentucky will cruise to the finish line after Saturday (not necessarily by winning every game), while Louisville will look ahead to plenty more challenges. Basically, if there's going to be any doubt in anyone's mind that Kentucky is a shoe-in for another Final Four appearance at season's end, it will be because of a loss to Louisville. And if any team remaining on Kentucky's schedule is good enough to draw up a blueprint for beating the Wildcats, it's Louisville.
Still, it's no secret that Rick Pitino's Cardinals have struggled to beat Kentucky in the new millennium. In the last ten meetings, Louisville has won three times. Two of those three wins have come in Louisville, which certainly adds some sort of advantage to what the Cards will try to accomplish on Saturday. Still, the recent track record against Kentucky - and Louisville's track record overall - is rather lopsided in the results column.
Where this rivalry isn't lopsided, though, is on the floor for about 40 minutes a year (assuming it only occurs once). Kentucky has bested Louisville more than twice as much as the other way around, but recently it has been close just about every single time.
Rivalry can be the great equalizer, and this year's edition shouldn't be any different. Match-up wise, Louisville shouldn't win this game. If match-ups alone determined results, nobody would beat Kentucky this season. But Louisville will have the crowd on their side and have a highly-talented group of their own. Again, they're the fourth-ranked team in the country with quality wins in their own right.
Nobody has beaten Kentucky this season, so there's no real proven formula to beating them. Rick Pitino suggested that competing on the glass will be a major part of the key to victory. Montrezl Harrell, Chinanu Onuaku and company will have to bring more energy to accomplish that. Shooting the three effectively would certainly help, and a good shooting night from Chris Jones or Terry Rozier (preferably both) could go a long way. So would winning the turnover battle and getting somebody in foul trouble. The list of things that would be nice to have go Louisville's way is almost infinite.
But all of the above is easier said than done, particularly against the depth of talent present on this year's Kentucky team. It's a bit frivolous to try to solve the puzzle right now.
In the biggest game of the regular season to date, Louisville will have to beat Kentucky with intensity, toughness, execution and pride on their home floor. That will be a good start, and if they out-do the Wildcats in those ways, they have more than enough talent to win.
Louisville isn't David, but that doesn't make Kentucky less of a Goliath. A victory over the Wildcats will certainly require more than just a slingshot.