NEW ORLEANS — It’s not hard for Chris Smith to understand why Louisville is a decided underdog against Kentucky.
He may not agree with his Cardinals being the underdog to No. 1 UK¿in Saturday night’s Final Four matchup, but considering UK¿is ranked No. 1, has won 36 games and beat Louisville 69-62 on Dec. 31 he can accept the reasoning.
Big East Tournament. We brought ourselves together and formed a new unit.”
Smith, a senior guard, averages 9.7 points for the Cardinals. He’s a career 40 percent 3-point shooter and both his offense and defensive quickness could be keys against UK Saturday.
“He means a lot to our team. Not a lot of people know about it, but he’s grown into a leadership position and he is not intimidated by anything and he always brings it,” Louisville senior Kyle Kuric said.
Smith, who has scored 706 points in two seasons at Louisville after transferring from Manhattan, was not timid talking about Saturday’s game.
“The arrogance from Kentucky fans is pretty intense out there, but our fans are just as bad,” Smith said. “The rivalry is pretty much about how much more macho you are than the next fan or player. But for us, we are here to win basketball games. It is one game per year (against Kentucky), but to get to play them again in the Final Four puts the rivalry over the top. This is for all the marbles really now.”
Smith still remembers “people kind of looking down on us” when the Cardinals returned to Louisville after losing to UK. “But right now I would say this is probably the most amped up Final Four game in college basketball history,” he said.
He noted that UK¿fans taken different views of the Cardinals.
“To be honest, right now some fans respect us from there. They watched us go through the battles of the last eight games,” Smith said. “But some fans are really arrogant. They will say, ‘Louisville is terrible. We can handle them, beat them by 20 points.’ But who cares about that? As long as we play our game, we will be fine.”
Smith did have one interesting conversation with a Kentucky fan this week that he says is the “craziest thing” he’s had happen as part of the rivalry.
“I was walking through a mall and a Kentucky fan asked me for a ticket to the game. She said if I gave her a ticket and we won, she would run out on the court butt-naked,” he laughed and said before noting he did not give her a ticket.
He says UK freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who had 24 points and 19 rebounds against Louisville, impressed him more than anybody when the teams played the first time.
“I would say Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a great player. In the future, if he works on a jump shot he probably will be in the Hall of Fame one day,” Smith said.
However, he also noted that his freshman teammate, Chane Behanan, is a lot better player than he showed the first time when foul trouble, including a technical foul, limited him to 15 minutes and only four points and five rebounds.
“Chane could change any game that he is in, and I feel like he knows not to make little stupid fouls in the beginning of games and still get out there and get after it and challenge their four men and hopefully dominate the rebounding,” Smith said.
Smith, though, did identify one weakness the Cardinals see in Kentucky
“I don’t think they’re in as good of shape as us, really. That will hurt them down the stretch,” Smith, who had seven points in the loss to UK, said. “I feel this will be a more up and down game (than the first meeting). Who controls the glass pretty much controls the game. The battle last time we didn’t have a healthy (point guard)¿Peyton Siva. This time Peyton Siva is healthy as is just as good as any point guard in the country right now if not better.”
He also offered a final message for UK fans about Saturday’s game.
“I would just tell them they are facing a different team than they did Dec. 31 as far as everybody looks more physically built and more focused on winning and everybody is more healthy this time around,” Smith said. “We’re a lot different and a lot better.”