Today's game between Kentucky and Louisville, a meeting of the last two national champions, will be plenty valuable to both teams, but not along any of the usual tired, recycled storylines.

Today's verdict will not be a referendum on the merits of freshman-heavy teams versus veteran-laden outfits.

Nor will today's game provide any sort of reliable forecast of whether each or either of these teams can get to Arlington, Texas, for the Final Four.

Rivalry games are notoriously erratic indicators of teams' quality on any other given night – recall NIT-bound UK giving eventual national champ U of L all it wanted last season.

So – other than that the commonwealth will come to a standstill for a couple of hours today to watch it – what is important about this game?

Simply put, both teams need to prove to the NCAA tournament selection committee, but more importantly to themselves, they can beat somebody worth playing.

The Cardinals are 11-1 and rated sixth in the Associated Press poll. The Cats are 9-3 and are rated No. 18.

Neither has beaten anyone who their second string wouldn't be favored to beat, though.

Louisville's 11 victories have come by an average of 29.2 points per game, but their lone foray into ranked competition – for that matter, the only power conference team they've faced – resulted in a 93-84 setback at North Carolina's hands.

The Cats have played a stouter non-conference schedule, but own no marquee wins to show for it. They're 0-3 against ranked teams, and though they showed good fight getting back into a game they had no business winning against Michigan State, they haven't played especially well in any of those three losses, to the No. 2 Spartans, No. 20 Baylor and the 18th-ranked Tar Heels.

Getting an impressive win today is important, too, for each team, because there don't appear to be many opportunities for those on either school's conference docket.

Kentucky has two Southeastern Conference contests with No. 13 Florida and one with No. 25 Missouri.

Louisville's American Athletic Conference slate includes two dates apiece with No. 15 Connecticut and No. 17 Memphis.

That's it as far as currently AP-ranked opponents go.

Louisville's early-season showing has been no more impressive than Kentucky's, but the Cats' inability to close any of their big games out, coupled with the fact Louisville returns most of its rotation from last year, has made an impression on Kentucky coach John Calipari.

"Let me tell you, the one thing with (Louisville), they play extremely hard, way harder than we've played, like, way harder," Calipari was quoted as saying by ESPN. "And again, they're a Final Four, national championship team this year – those guys are back. They know how hard to play; they're not rattled late, all the things that this team is still learning about."

That's why today's game means more to Kentucky than it does to Louisville.

Not because the Cards beat the Cats last year, or because Kentucky missed the Big Dance.

Because this Kentucky team has yet to prove it can win big games.

Louisville returns five of the seven players who played double-digit minutes in last season's national championship defeat of Michigan.

Kentucky may be more talented than Louisville – the recruiting analysts certainly seem to think so – but the Cats return only two current major contributors from last year's team in Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress, and no one who played in the 2012 national title game.

In fact, any UK fan who entered a coma shortly after that Final Four and was blessed enough to come out of it last week would recognize nothing about the Cats except their uniforms.

This Kentucky club has proven nothing yet, except that preseason ambitions of 40-0 in this day and age are ludicrous.

They get a chance today, though, to show themselves and everyone else they can beat a quality opponent, and thus take a big step toward more postseason success.

(2) comments

chuckham
chuckham

Excellent column, Mr. Klemme.

mjenkins
mjenkins

Actually "the commonwealth" will not come to a standstill for a couple of hours or even for a couple of minutes, at least not around me. From my perspective, well it turns out I didn't even know they were playing today.

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