For the Louisville and Kentucky fanbases, it's no secret that the UK/UL rivalry is the best in college basketball. But despite both teams and their fans considering the game a "must-win" contest, it's virtually always just a great deal of hyperbole.
The game takes place early in the season and isn't a very good indicator of how either squad will be playing by the time conference play is finished and it's time for the NCAA tournament.
This year, however, is quite a different story. The December 29 matchup between the in-state rivals is a must-win for the Cardinals, not just for bragging rights, but because it's a game that they should win easily.
This is arguably the best team that Rick Pitino has had during his tenure at Louisville. They are incredibly experienced, talented and by far his best shot to beat UK during the John Calipari era at UK.
No one on UK's roster can match Gorgui Dieng underneath the basket. Even if he's not back to 100 percent, his "unexpected" presence in Saturday's game should give the Cardinals a huge advantage on the boards and inside scoring.
Russ Smith's scoring ability and Peyton Siva's veteran presence and ball handling skills make them a nightmare backcourt for any team to go up against. UK's Ryan Harrow and Archie Goodwin may be very talented, but Harrow's occasional timidness (which will probably be exacerbated by playing in front of a raucous Louisville crowd) and Goodwin's propensity to force things and turn the ball over gives another huge advantage to Louisville.
This is also by far John Calipari's weakest team since he took over the Kentucky basketball program...something that is pretty well-known and accepted in the bluegrass state and across the country. Even Calipari's best teams don't really hit their stride until February. But even keeping that in mind, the pressure is still on Louisville to win this game. They overmatch the Wildcats at nearly every position, have much more depth and have the home-court advantage.
If Louisville wins this game (which they should), it won't just be a victory over a team that they should have beaten; it will also be a statement that the debate about which is the better bluegrass basketball programs is far from over.
If the Wildcats win, however, it will be the most demoralizing loss possible for a team that should be contending for the national title...and something that the Big Blue Nation will never let the Cardinal Nation hear the end of.
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