When college basketball magazines started hitting the newsstands this summer, many featured Kentucky and Louisville on the cover with predictions that the Wildcats and Cardinals would battle for a No. 1 national ranking en route to another potential high-stakes clash in the Final Four.
Much has changed since those magazines were first released, at least for half of Saturday’s matchup at Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center.
Rick Pitino is winless at Louisville against John Calipari's Wildcats.
The Cardinals are rolling along at 11-1 and ranked No. 4 in this week’s AP Top 25 poll. They might just be, as Kentucky coach John Calipari declared Friday, "the odds-on favorite to win the whole thing."
Meanwhile, the Wildcats may be the nation’s biggest enigma at 8-3 and unranked for the last four weeks after a string of disappointing results. "A work in progress," Calipari says.
Suddenly, what had been billed in the preseason as college basketball’s early-season Super Bowl has morphed into a potential mismatch.
Being the underdog -- Louisville is favored by 7 points -- is extremely rare territory for Kentucky in its four seasons under Calipari. Asked how he thought his freshman-dominated team would respond to being in that unique position, Calipari shrugged his shoulders and suggested it would also be a mystery to him until the ball is tipped.
"I’ve got all young kids, so you have no idea," Calipari said. "I go in game-to-game, just saying I wonder what’s happening here, trying different lineups, doing different things, trying to figure out my team.
"(Louisville is) a Final Four team with everybody returning, a healthy (Wayne) Blackshear and (Montrezl) Harrell added to the team. That just took them (up) another notch. They are a well-oiled machine. We are a work in progress."
For his part, Pitino isn’t buying the mismatch talk. He has witnessed the rivalry from both benches over a span of 20 seasons, the first eight with Kentucky from 1989-1997 and the last 12 with Louisville.
"It's always a tough game," Pitino said of the Kentucky-Louisville clash. "It's always a big rivalry game that we enjoy. We have a lot of fun with it."
Kentucky’s struggles to get the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class clicking on all cylinders -- as it did last season en route to a national title -- may have damaged its national profile, but it hasn’t taken any luster off the rivalry from inside state borders.
The Big Blue Nation is quick to point out that the pressure rests squarely on Louisville -- and perhaps more accurately, Pitino, who has yet to defeat a Calipari-coached Wildcats team. Kentucky has won seven of the last nine games in the series and four in a row, including a 69-62 win last year in Rupp Arena and a 69-61 triumph in the national semifinal at the Superdome in New Orleans.
The rivalry has often been portrayed as contentious, especially between the coaches. But Calipari and Pitino have consistently shot down attempts to make their allegedly-estranged relationship the focal point of the matchup.
"The only game (in the rivalry) that has meant anything to me was last year's game, because it cost us a championship," Pitino said of the semifinal loss.
"My relationship with (Calipari) has been the same. When they are not playing us, I am rooting for them. They put my name in the rafters (at UK)."
Calipari spoke little of Pitino on Friday, instead saving his praise for the Louisville players.
"I’ve watched tape, and they are really good with really good players," he said of the Cardinals. "I’ve been saying for years how much I love (guard Peyton) Siva. I saw him and (former Kentucky guard) Eric Bledsoe at the same time in the Louisville Classic and said 'That kid is ridiculous.'
The recent improved play of Ryan Harrow is reason for optimism for Kentucky.
"Russ Smith scores with anybody. Blackshear is a big guard who can shoot 3s. (Chane) Behanan is a beast -- best offensive rebounder we’ll play all year. And then you’ve got this kid Harrell, who is playing 13 minutes a game because the team is that good. If he were playing 20-25 minutes a game, he’d be a top-15 pick (in the NBA Draft). He’s on a team where he can (only) get 13 minutes, so this is a great challenge for us."
With the challenge comes the chance to prove themselves. After losing back-to-back games, on the road at Notre Dame and at home against Baylor, the Wildcats fell from No. 3 to out of the AP poll in less than a month. Four consecutive blowout wins since over softer opponents have helped right the ship, but Louisville provides a much better measuring stick for where the Wildcats want to be.
Kentucky is embracing the underdog role, almost as if it has brought relief from the pressure of defending a national championship with a roster that had little to do with last season’s run to the title.
"It’s a great opportunity," said freshman guard Archie Goodwin, who leads Kentucky in scoring at 16 points per game. "We’re just trying to go in there and turn some heads, let people know that we actually are a good team."
Freshman center Nerlens Noel, who is averaging 10.7 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.7 blocked shots per game, feels the same way.
"We’re looking forward to proving people wrong,” Noel said.
Calipari wondered aloud if his players knew exactly what they were getting into on Saturday. They played a true road game against the Irish and on neutral floors against Maryland and Duke, but this will be an entirely different scenario.
"They don’t (know)," Calipari said, "but they’ll feel it when the game starts."
Calipari predicted a physical contest, one that Louisville will attempt to "muck up" from the outset. It will be yet another test for sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow, who has bounced back after a slow start -- which included him missing four games due to personal issues. Harrow scored 23 points in last Saturday’s 82-54 win over Marshall.
In the seven games he’s played, which included three starts, Harrow has dished out 20 assists and committed only five turnovers, a trait that will need to continue against a Louisville defense that is No. 1 nationally in turnover margin (plus-8.6) and No. 2 in steals per game (11.9). The Cardinals have scored an eye-popping 35 percent of their points off turnovers this season.
"It’ll be interesting," Calipari said. "We’re going to find out where we are on a lot of positions and where we have to go. ... I’m pleased that we’re getting better. I don’t know what that means when you start playing more games against teams like this, but I do know we’re getting better. I’m pleased with that."