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December 28, 2012

UK 'a special game,' Pitino says, but not a must-win

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Rick Pitino and John Calipari have mastered coach speak. The two have combined for 49 years of coaching, so it's safe to assume neither will provide bulletin board material during rivalry week.

And Pitino doesn't put an emphasis on the Louisville-Kentucky rivalry game being a must-win, but the Cardinals coach at least noted that this game is different than others.

"This is not just a typical game, it's a special game…," Pitino said Friday at the Yum! Center, U of L's practice facility. "I expect a very good ballgame."

But while the Cardinals are favored - and are looking for their first win against a Calipari-coached Kentucky team - Pitino wouldn't say that Saturday's game means any more than last season's regular-season UK vs. U of L game, or the one before that.

These games have never meant much to him. He laughs about them, says it's entertaining to watch the fans get so worked up. Pitino is one of the few who has been able to take in this rivalry from both sides. He coached the Wildcats from 1989-1997.

Pitino insists that only one UK vs. U of L game has ever meant something to him. That game was nine months ago.

On the way to their eighth national championship, the Cats knocked off Louisville in the Final Four, a game Pitino won't soon forget.

"We played them twice last year and the only game that has ever meant anything to me was last year…," Pitino said. "It cost us a chance to win a national championship and that's when it's really more than a game. They won the championship and we didn't."

But it's the opposite for Louisville center Gorgui Dieng. He tries not to think about it last season at all.

"That was last year," Dieng said. "I don't even want to think about it."

Dieng will be making his return after missing seven games because of a broken bone in his wrist against Missouri on Nov. 23.

For the first time since the junior center has been in college, Dieng's parents will be making the trip from Africa to watch their son play. Dieng told his parents how nasty the rivalry can be amongst the two schools.

"I tell them it's two schools that hate each other," Dieng said. "But the good thing is, they don't speak English."

Pitino said Dieng looks to be close to 100 percent, shooting the ball as well as he has and doesn't look to be out of shape.

But Dieng's one setback is his defensive timing.

"Defense is the only thing he's behind the eight ball a little bit, outside of that he's ready to go," Pitino said. "We're excited about that."

With Dieng down low, Louisville will be at full strength and looking to knock off the Cats for the first time since 2008.

And although UK comes into the game unranked and with three losses, Pitino has seen the Cats click over Christmas break.

He even said they are as talented as last season's national championship team.

"I've watched a lot of tape on them the last few days, I think they have dramatically improved the last two weeks from where they were," Pitino said. "I think their passing has improved, their defense has improved, their offensive half court execution.

"If you look at statistics they are every bit as strong as they were last year although they are not as good as last year right now because they don't have a (Darius) Miller, (Terrence) Jones, or a (Doron) Lamb. The veterans they do have are just getting ingrained in the system like their freshman."

Pitino was happy that his Cards are playing UK now, because he said the Cats will only get better as the season goes progresses.

CBS's latest NCAA tournament prediction put UK as a No. 10 seed. Pitino said the Cats will be higher.

"This is a team that is formidable at every position," Pitino said. "Come February they are going to be a very difficult ball club to play against."

And to say that UK needs this game to build its resume doesn't make sense to Pitino.

"It's a statement that doesn't make sense, 'They need the game,'" Pitino said. "They're going to be an NCAA team, they are going to be a high seed, they are going to be one of the strongest teams in the SEC, Florida and Kentucky, so no they don't need this game."


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