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Weekend Predictions: Rupp Sadness when Louisville beats Kentucky

Do we have to discuss last week’s predictions? I’d rather not.

Texas A&M embarrassed Baylor. Duke couldn’t contain Utah’s Jakob Poeltl without Amile Jefferson. And Butler looked like a top-10 team in a win over Purdue at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

So that didn’t go well.

This week, however, I’ll focus on one game. The only game that matters this weekend: Louisville at Kentucky.

Last week: 2-3

Overall: 18-12

No. 16 Louisville at No. 12 Kentucky, 12 p.m. ET, Saturday, CBS: I watched a 50-something Louisville fan go nose-to-nose with a young Kentucky fan at a convenience store in New Orleans during the Final Four in 2012. I remember the party in the Louisville locker room after Russ Smith and Co. defeated Kentucky in the Cardinals’ 2012-13 national title campaign. I remember Chris Jones and Tyler Ulis trash-talking each other as Kentucky sealed last year’s win at Louisville, John Calipari’s seventh in eight games against the Cardinals.

These fans don’t like one another. But it’s not some “fight all afternoon, hold hands in a prayer circle after the game” kind of thing that we see on Sundays. This is a Rodney Dangerfield-like, unfiltered rivalry.

And that’s the spirit that Louisville’s new leaders, Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, can’t anticipate. They won’t know what Louisville-Kentucky feels like until they’re in that moment. And the key underclassmen on Rick Pitino’s roster -- Chinanu Onuaku, Quentin Snider and Donovan Mitchell -- can’t imagine what they’ll see and hear once they’re at Rupp Arena for this matchup. Plus, they’ll travel to Lexington without big man Mangok Mathiang, who suffered a fractured foot over the weekend.

Hard to envision this crew overcoming these circumstances in a hostile environment and defeating a team that has dominated the rivalry under Calipari.

But here’s the thing: Louisville is the better team right now.

Losses to UCLA and Ohio State humbled the Wildcats but also highlighted Kentucky’s troubles on offense. Texas-Arlington (1.06 points per possession) outplayed Kentucky (0.97 PPP) in their respective matchups against Ohio State, and the Mavericks faced the Buckeyes on the road. The Wildcats have made 31.3 percent of their 2-point jump shots and 29.7 percent of their 3-pointers, per hoop-math.com. Without a true back-to-the-basket offensive threat in the paint, Kentucky can’t play through the post the way it could with Julius Randle and Karl Anthony-Towns. Also, the Wildcats have committed turnovers on 18.2 percent of their possessions, 140th nationally per KenPom.com. That’s not good.

But they have Jamal Murray, a special freshman who is difficult to corral. And he’s flanked by other talented guards who will be the keys to Kentucky’s operation Saturday.

Louisville, however, will pressure that backcourt. The Cards are forcing turnovers on 23 percent of their defensive possessions. They nearly knocked off Michigan State in East Lansing with that pressure. But Pitino also boasts a capable offense that entered a Wednesday night matchup against Utah Valley shooting 57 percent (12th in the country per KenPom.com) inside the arc. Lee, Lewis and Snider all entered the week connecting on 40 percent or more of their two-point jump shots, too.

Kentucky and Louisville are both blessed with elite defenses (KenPom.com gives the Cardinals a slight edge). And defense, especially inside, will affect the outcome.

That’s not the only key to this game, though.

This will come down to free throws. Kentucky will attack Onuaku, who picked up four fouls in five of the seven matchups prior to Wednesday night’s game, and exploit Mathiang’s absence. Kentucky has more depth in its frontcourt, and that will matter late.

Both Kentucky and Louisville are subpar free throw shooting teams, however, with marks below 68 percent.

But that’s where the game will be decided. At the charity stripe.

In the closing minutes, Louisville and Kentucky will trade free throws in a tight game. Look for Lee to draw late contact and get to the line on a controversial call. Look for Murray to do the same for the Wildcats in the final moments.

Calipari, however, has only lost one Louisville-Kentucky rivalry game. And he has never suffered a loss to the Cardinals at Rupp Arena.

But this is a Kentucky team that played poorly against an Ohio State squad that’s not on Louisville’s level. Right now, these Wildcats don’t have the swagger -- not yet, anyway -- that Kentucky perennially thrives on.

So at the end of this game, we’ll be left with the truth: Louisville is the better team right now.

Prediction: Louisville 74, Kentucky 72