LEXINGTON, Ky. — Louisville has had enough of losing to Kentucky.
The No. 4 Cardinals have dropped four in a row to the Wildcats, including last spring’s national semifinal in New Orleans. Kentucky won that game 69-61 and went on to beat Kansas two days later for its eighth national championship.
That Final Four loss still bothers Cardinals coach Rick Pitino, who is 0-4 against Wildcats counterpart John Calipari. Fortunately for Pitino, he enters today’s showdown (4 p.m., WCSC-TV/CBS) in Louisville with an experienced team that’s 11-1 and favored to reclaim Bluegrass State supremacy.
Kentucky (8-3) started the season No. 3 behind Indiana and Louisville. But the Wildcats have fallen from the rankings and are looking to establish themselves with another group of talented freshmen.
They enter the game as an underdog against a Louisville squad that’s playing well and hungry to prove it against their archrival. However, Pitino has warned his team about getting too excited against the Cats.
“When it comes down to it, it’s all about execution,” Pitino said Friday. “It really is about execution. And the emotional part wears off. Sometimes emotion is a killer and it drains you. You’ve got to be very careful in this type of game that it doesn’t.”
At the same time, the Cardinals have reason to feel good about their chances. They’ve been ranked in the top six all season and have beaten quality schools such as Northern Iowa, Missouri, College of Charleston and Memphis.
Louisville has succeeded behind Pitino’s trademark: tough pressure defense. The Cardinals lead the nation in turnover margin (+8.6) and are second in steals at 11.9 per game.
Since their only loss this season against Duke, the Cardinals have won six straight. Their streak is notable because they’ve done so without center Gorgui Dieng, who broke his left wrist Nov. 23 during the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas.
Expected to miss four to six weeks, Dieng was cleared this week and Pitino will start the 6-11 junior against Kentucky. The Senegal native’s availability isn’t surprising, considering he had been working out and dressed the past few games.
Dieng grasps the importance of the in-state rivalry — his parents will be among the sold-out crowd at the KFC Yum! Center. He nonetheless insisted that the timing of his return was purely coincidental.
“I’m back because the doctors cleared me to play,” said Dieng, averaging 8.2 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. “If the docs said I could not play this game, I would not play. It’s not because they (Kentucky) have two bigs that they want me to play. It’s not like that. I just get back because it’s a good time to be back.”
Dieng has explained the rivalry to his parents.
“I’ve told them it’s two schools that hate each other,” he said. “The good thing is, they don’t speak English. Whatever (fans) say, it doesn’t matter to them.”
What matters to Louisville is how guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith dictate the backcourt battle against Kentucky.
Siva, a senior considered one of the nation’s best point guards, is averaging a career-best 11.4 points along with 6.3 assists and 2.3 steals.
“He’s good with the ball,” Calipari said of Siva. “He finds his teammates. He’s scoring better, shooting the ball way better.”
Smith, who came off the bench to score 30 points against Kentucky here last New Year’s Eve, has raised his scoring average from 11.5 to 19.7 points largely because of his 34-percent rate from 3-point range.
Kentucky’s four-game winning streak can be attributed to its own improved guard play.
The Wildcats appear to have found their point guard in sophomore Ryan Harrow. Since returning from a four-game absence because of an illness and tending to a family matter in Georgia, he has played the past five contests and started the last two, scoring a career-high 23 points on Marshall last Saturday.
More important to Calipari, Harrow is putting his teammates in the right spots on the floor and getting them to communicate. That’s important for the Wildcats, who will try to establish an inside presence with freshmen Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress.
“I’m definitely looking forward to it,” the 6-10 Noel said of facing Dieng. “It’s going to be a good matchup for myself. ... He’s a bigger dude, about 6-11. He’s a physical player and I’m ready for the challenge.”
As both schools maintain that Saturday’s meeting is just another game, players and coaches acknowledge the place the rivalry holds among their fan bases. Kentucky freshman Archie Goodwin said he followed it in high school but quickly learned how different it was to be a part of it.
“It’s a big game,” he said. “It’s not just the media that really says it. ... It’s something we knew about coming in here. All schools have their rivalry and this is just one of them.”
Pitino has seen the rivalry from both sides. He coached Kentucky from 1989-97 and won the 1996 national championship before arriving at Louisville in 2001 and leading the Cardinals to two Final Fours.
However, Pitino came to understand what the rivalry meant after last year’s semifinal loss because it denied the Cardinals a chance for their third NCAA title. That might explain his determination to beat Kentucky, a quest that will involve Big Blue Nation yelling nasty things in the Cardinals’ house.
Asked if it’s the best rivalry in college basketball, Pitino paused and said, “Yeah, because we live with each other. I don’t think a Duke woman would marry a North Carolina guy. And I don’t think a North Carolina man would marry a Duke woman.
“We just intermarry all the time. It’s hurt our society here in Louisville,” he jokingly added. “And for those of you who have married a Kentucky woman, you know what I’m talking about.”
AP Freelancer Josh Abner in Louisville contributed to this report.