LEXINGTON, Ky. – Identity-building seems more important right now for No. 12 Kentucky and 16th-ranked archrival Louisville than claiming Bluegrass bragging rights.
The winner of Saturday's annual showdown at Rupp Arena can take a big step in that process, along with giving its fan base something to feel good about entering conference play.
The talented and young Wildcats (9-2), replacing seven players who turned pro after last season, are still finding their way after opening No. 2 in the Top 25. They face an 11-1 Louisville squad with something to prove as well, and Kentucky junior guard Dominique Hawkins believes that beating another high-quality opponent provides more motivation than the rivalry.
"We know that they're a great pressing team, and I'm pretty sure that's what we're going to prepare for," the Richmond, Ky., native said of the Cardinals. "It's just another game, and we're just looking to win."
While that may be underplaying it a little, if the Wildcats are going to come away with a victory, they'll have to beat a Cardinals team that might be even hungrier than Ohio State. The Buckeyes were unfazed by Kentucky's height and hype in their 74-67 win last week in Brooklyn, N.Y. Ohio State led throughout and withstood a second-half rally led by Jamal Murray's 33-point explosion.
"We've got things that we've got to do," Calipari said. "We're still tweaking offensively exactly how we have to play. I saw some good stuff in the second half of that game [Ohio State]. But, we're a ways away."
Louisville began the season unranked with a made-over roster of youngsters as well but has quickly grown into a group looking to be competitive in the Atlantic Coast Conference and beyond.
"Our confidence is pretty high," said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, comparing his team's docket to the alternative of a tougher schedule with such a young team.
Graduate transfers Damion Lee (17.3) and Trey Lewis have combined for nearly 32 points per game in the backcourt with sophomore guard Quentin Snider averaging 10 points. They'll face Kentucky's three-guard backcourt of Murray, Isaiah Briscoe and Tyler Ulis.
The game is a chance for Louisville to earn a signature win, against its biggest rival at that.
"We know how bad our campus wants this, how bad our fans want this game," said Lewis, who's averaging 14.7 points per game. "We're going into this as some very tough competition [entering] the next stretch, so we don't feed too much into the hype. But we know what this game means."