At the outset of the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky and Louisville were two teams that were both in danger of getting a reality check.
The Wildcats were in danger of a reality check because they had just shown their mortality in the SEC tourney against Vanderbilt. The Cardinals were in danger of a reality check because they had just overachieved their way to a victory in the Big East tournament. Or so it seemed.
Now, here stand both teams in the Final Four, staring straight at a renewal of their in-state rivalry. The stakes are higher in this renewal than they've ever been.
Kentucky will be favored to win Saturday's game, if for no other reason than it's the higher seed. The Wildcats will also be favored to win because they've spent the tournament re-establishing the dominance that escaped them against Vanderbilt in the final game of the SEC tourney.
This should be just fine as far as Louisville is concerned. All that matters is that the Cardinals convince themselves that they are capable of taking down Kentucky. And truth be told, this shouldn't be too difficult. The Cardinals will find it easy to believe that they're capable of taking down Kentucky because they really are capable of taking down Kentucky.
Think back, if you will, to New Year's Eve, when the Wildcats and Cardinals squared off against one another at Rupp Arena. Despite the hostile environment, Louisville was able to flex its defensive muscles and hold Kentucky to a collective shooting percentage of 29.8, and it also forced Kentucky to commit 20 turnovers.
The downside? Louisville got killed on the boards, and that was a key difference in a game the Cardinals ended up losing, 69-62.
But in everything else, Louisville showed that it is definitely able to hang with the Wildcats for 40 minutes. All it takes is a suffocating and shape-shifting form of defense meant to bewilder and frustrate, something that Louisville happens to specialize in.
In essence, the Cardinals force their opponents into playing sloppy basketball games. There are a lot of missed shots, a lot of turnovers and a lot of personal fouls when all is said and done, and the score typically ends up being on the low side. These are the kinds of games that Louisville wins, and they're the kinds of games Kentucky doesn't typically find itself in.
Especially not so far in this tournament. With the exception of a tough first half against Indiana, Kentucky basically hasn't been challenged so far in the Big Dance. The Wildcats have blown past all comers, looking very much like the best team in the nation.
Louisville will not fall prey to that dominance. The Cardinals will make a point of showing the Wildcats different defensive looks, and they're not going to let them get in a rhythm offensively. Kentucky will commit more turnovers than usual, leading to invaluable transition opportunities for a Louisville team that will need as many as it can get.
The Cardinals will need more to be Kentucky, of course. They can't afford to get owned on the boards as badly as they did back on New Year's Eve, and life will be much easier if they can get Anthony Davis into some early foul trouble (such a thing has been known to happen). Even then, victory will not be guaranteed.
But victory is definitely a possibility. The Cardinals are not a perfect team and they don't have nearly as much talent as Kentucky does, but they are very well-coached, and their style of basketball will spell trouble for a Kentucky team that, though talented, is not perfect.
The more imperfect Louisville makes Kentucky look, the better its chances of winning will get.