INDIANAPOLIS-- The last time these two teams met, Louisville's best defense against Kentucky's Julius Randle were the leg cramps that sidelined the powerful 6-foot-9 forward for most of the second half.
That stopped the abuse he had heaped on the Cardinals in the first half when he hit 7-of-8 shots while scoring 17 points and grabbed three rebounds. But then he played just four minutes in the second half of the Wildcats' 73-66 victory on Dec. 28 in Rupp Arena.
"We took him lightly and he did what he does best, which is score and try to bully everybody," said UofL reserve center Mangok Mathiang, who had four points, four blocks and three rebounds in that earlier meeting.
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Cramps haven't been a problem for Randle lately, so when the No. 4 Cards (31-5) and No. 8 Cats (26-10) collide Friday night at 9"45 in the Sweet 16, UofL will be left to its own devices in an effort to corral or at least neutralize in some fashion UK's leading scorer (15.1 ppg) and rebounder (10.6), who has a nation's best 22 double-doubles this season.
That job will fall mostly on the broad shoulders of 6-8 Montrezl Harrell and to a lesser extent, 6-9 [db]Stephan Van Treese]/db] and possibly the 6-10 Mathiang.
"He's (Randle) a guy we're going to key on and we're going to try to take him out of the game," UofL forward Luke Hancock says. "Montrezl and Stephan are going to have to come up huge for us."
Harrell, who had only six points and four rebounds in the December game but has been a big force inside for the Cards over the past two months, says he can't count on handling Randle alone.
"This game is not about one-on-one basketball," says Harrell, who is averaging 14.0 ppg and 8.4 rpg, with 49 blocks. "It's about team basketball. "So I'm not gonna focus on one person. One person's not gonna win the game. I've not paid attention to just one person or being worried about stopping this person or that person. We're going to make sure we do everything as a team to win this game."
While Hancock said that Randle presents a matchup problem for every team in the country, Randle wouldn't go that far.
"I don't know if it was a matchup or anything," he said. "I was just kind of feeling it. My teammates did a good job of getting me the ball at spots where I can attack. And I was aggressive. As far as the cramping thing, I hope that's behind me. I mean, I haven't cramped in a little while. Knock on wood."
UK coach John Calipari said he expects UofL to open with Harrell guarding Randle.
"I mean, obviously they watched that tape and they'll have an answer for it," Calipari says. "I think their zone and matchup zone could be an answer. I imagine they'll put Harrell on him."
Van Treese says the emergence of Harrell and the improvement the Cards have made defensively will help them do a better job this time against Randle, and seven-footers Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein. Louisville played primarily man-to-man in that game; now the Cards are playing a hybrid zone that is constantly changing.
"Facing them before gives us a sense of how Randle is going to play and how hard he plays in general," Van Treese says. "Our defense has gotten a lot better. You look at our defense now, compared to what it was in December, it's a tremendous difference.
"We barely played zone then because (freshman Terry) Rozier and (newcomer Chris) Jones were still learning and our defense is tough to learn because we do a lot of different things, a lot of switching. It takes time, and now they're catching on. So I'm excited to see how we match up now and how different it's going to be."
Of course, the youthful Wildcats are a different team, too, having seemingly found their identity late in the season and playing more together.
"We have committed to each other on both ends of the floor," Randle says. "Our chemistry is a lot better. Coach has made our roles really simple and it's working out for us."
Said reserve forward Alex Poythress: "We are a lot better. We are a whole different team. We are fighting more and playing better defense. We are better on offense and everywhere."
UofL coach Rick Pitino is 11-0 in Sweet 16 games, including 5-0 at Louisville, but he insists that few, if any, of them has been as much of a challenge as this one.
"This is probably one of the more difficult ones I have faced, because they have so many weapons that are playing well right now," Pitino says. "We understand what we're up against. And I can tell you very honestly that Kentucky in that locker room right now isn't worried about my resume'. They're worried about Russ Smith, Luke Hancock, Montrezl Harrell.
"I know we have a very good basketball team. They have a very good basketball team. It should be a heck of a game."