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Kentucky-Louisville a rare regular-season must-see game

Rivalry game between two top powers is one of the rare regular-season games that fans can get excited about.

Kentucky Wildcats forward Willie Cauley-Stein (15) dunks the ball against the UCLA Bruins during the first half at United Center. (Mike DiNovo/USA Today)
Kentucky Wildcats forward Willie Cauley-Stein (15) dunks the ball against the UCLA Bruins during the first half at United Center. (Mike DiNovo/USA Today)Read more

GIVEN THAT all the superpowers know they will be in the tournament before the season ever begins, regular-season games are rarely must-watch anymore.

Kentucky at Louisville on Saturday is must-watch.

The teams will arrive at the KFC Yum! Center, hard by the Ohio River in the 'Ville's downtown, with combined records of 23-0 and rankings of No. 1 (Kentucky) and No. 4 (Louisville).

Rick Pitino's Cardinals team lost most of the key players from the 2013 national champs and last season's Sweet 16 team, which was knocked out by Kentucky. But they still have Montrezl Harrell and more than enough talent to play with anybody.

John Calipari's Wildcats actually have a few upperclassmen, in addition to the Harrison twins and another ridiculous freshman class. The halftime score against UCLA on Saturday in Chicago really was 41-7. The Bruins shot 3-for-37 in the first and trailed, 24-0. This is UCLA we are talking about, not a directional school.

Louisville has not played nearly as strong a schedule as Kentucky. The Cardinals have wins over Minnesota (by 13 points), Ohio State (nine) and Indiana (20). UK's victories include beating UCLA by 39 points, Kansas (32), Providence (20), North Carolina (14) and Texas (12). Nobody has stayed within double digits, and the Wildcats' average winning margin is 28.2 points.

Scoring will be a real problem in a game featuring the first- and second-most efficient defenses. UK is No. 1, holding teams to .829 points per possession. Louisville is second (.836 ppp). UK's offense is fourth (1.15 ppp), The Ville's 35th (1.078 ppp).

If Louisville does not beat Kentucky, then who can? Maybe nobody. Louisville won't get though the ACC unbeaten, with Duke and Virginia also among the nation's nine unbeaten teams. UK definitely could get through the SEC without a loss, because defense travels.

The Wildcats have had 10 or more blocks in half of their games. Seven of their opponents have shot less than 30 percent. They have held 10 of their 12 opponents to their lowest scoring totals.

And there is the small matter of the disdain the fan bases of schools, separated by 75 miles of mostly I-64, have for each other. Each loves its hoops. UK is averaging a nation's best (22,944) this season at Rupp Arena. Louisville is third (20,968) at KFC. They just hate each other.

Pitino was king at UK until he abdicated for Boston and then returned to the commonwealth, but at that "other school," where he became the first coach to win national titles at two schools. Cal came with the promise of making Kentucky bigger than ever. He has delivered, with more on the way.

When asked how good Kentucky was, Kansas coach Bill Self said: "They were a joke against us. We were awful. I guess they were a joke [Saturday]. How does that happen? You do that when you're playing Division II schools."

Saturday won't decide the 2015 national title, but it will decide the championship of Kentucky, which, down there, might be bigger anyway.

Pitino coaching tree

Rick Pitino has taken Providence, Kentucky and Louisville to the Final Four. His teams, going back to his days at Boston University, have won conference championships in the America East, SEC, Conference USA, Big East and American. Now, he will take his first run at the ACC.

Pitino is not only a great coach; he is a coach of coaches. An incredible 27 of Pitino's assistants have become head coaches, including 11 currently.

How good was Temple vs. Kansas?

About as good as it gets. The game was never competitive.

Temple scored 1.18 points per possession and held KU to .80 ppp. Kansas is averaging 1.107 ppp on the season.

Temple could not have been an easy scout for KU, with a 1-day turnaround, a long trip and those two new players, Jesse Morgan and Devin Coleman. They did get a tape of Thursday's Delaware game, and Self told me it was illuminating.

"They are totally different than they were before," Self said. "We've all watched tape of games up to that point, but you can almost throw those games away because they are such a different team."

A different team that already was playing solid defense and now has scoring threats all over the court.

I could see Temple doing in the first 10 weeks of 2015 what Saint Joseph's did during the same time period last year - get on a roll right into the NCAA Tournament.

When and where games are played is everything. St. Joe's was obviously better than Temple last season, but the teams played early at Temple when the Hawks had not figured it out, and the Owls won. Temple is obviously better than the Hawks this season, but the Hawks won the game on Hawk Hill when the Owls did not have an offense yet.

Loved that Temple took the Broad Street Line to the game, a custom when playing at the WFC. The Owls caught the train at the Cecil B. Moore stop, cruised under City Hall into South Philly and then absolutely crushed a top-10 team.

The big Big 12

If NCAA selections were today, 70 percent of the Big 12 would be in. Bill Self has been watching as much as he can to get ready for league play. And he would not argue with that assessment.

"I watched [Oklahoma] lose to Washington [Saturday] on the last possession by one, and they're, like, 8-3 and they're a team that could win our league," Self said. "Our league is maybe the best it's been. It's hard to say any team could win it all, the way Kentucky's playing. Texas is certainly going to be a Final Four contender. Iowa State is one, as well. Oklahoma could be. Hopefully, we'll get playing where maybe we could put ourselves in that conversation."

The league had seven in this week's Top 25 and is a combined 94-18.

This and that

* La Salle's five losses have come against teams that are a combined 47-12.

* Through games of Saturday, Big 12 teams are averaging a nation's best 74.58 points, while America East teams are averaging the least, 63.12 points.

* VCU has played the nation's toughest schedule by opponents' records. Through Saturday, the Rams' opponents had combined records of 81-24.

* The unbeatens are Kentucky, Louisville, Duke, Virginia, Villanova, Arizona, Washington, Colorado State and TCU. There are no surprises with the first six, but I don't know who saw Washington, Colorado State and TCU being a combined 32-0 the day before Christmas.

* I have my fourth team for the "Take Your Guarantee and Win Anyway" Classic that I am sponsoring at the Palestra as an alternative to the real Final Four. It is obviously Texas Southern, which went to Michigan State on Saturday with one win and without the departed Aaric Murray. Naturally, Mike Davis' team won in overtime. Texas Southern will join NJIT, which won at Michigan; University of the Sciences, which won at Drexel; and Yale, which won at Connecticut. Tickets are still free.