Sophomore Jordan Nwora is preparing for a “nasty” game against UK. | Courtesy of UofL Athletics

Jordan Nwora is a guy you can count on.

Not just to hit his averages of 17 points and eight rebounds a game — both best for the University of Louisville this season — but also to offer some fresh fuel for the buildup for Louisville’s battle with the University of Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday, Dec. 29, at 2 p.m. at the KFC Yum! Center (ESPN-2, Radio WKRD-790 AM, WHAS 840-AM).

With almost everyone else involved clammed up tight, the 6-foot-7 sophomore tells it like he thinks it is:

“It’s really just a nasty rivalry,” says Nwora. “If I had to put it in one word, it’s nasty.”

Which is OK with Nwora.

Nwora hails from Buffalo, N.Y. | Courtesy of UofL Athletics

“Last year, we all know what happened (Kentucky creamed Louisville 90-61 in Lexington), so I’m really just anxious for this game coming up,” he says.

A year ago, the rout was on early as Kentucky rolled to a 41-27 halftime lead and just kept going. Instead of 29 points, the margin could have been 39.

Nwora, who was played sparingly as a freshman by previous coach David Padgett, got into the game as a substitute and scored three points. He also lost his man a couple times.

Both schools are fielding significantly different lineups this season, but Nwora says that unlike other games, this one kind of simmers and boils along on its own — especially off the court.

“As far as environment, being at Rupp, it was crazy,” says Nwora. “The fans heckling you the whole time, saying some stuff you really don’t want to hear, but you have to play through it. It’s the same thing on the court. As players, we all know how much it means, and that’s what makes it so nasty.”

Of course, Nwora may be holding a different definition of “nasty” for Kentucky’s players than its fans. More intense, than ugly.

“It’s basketball,” he explains. “How well you play is going to speak for itself.”

Got the green light

A December later from Louisville’s drubbing in Lexington, Nwora is called upon by new Louisville coach Chris Mack to play a starring role, and the rangy forward from Buffalo, N.Y., has responded.

Mack has given Nwora the green light to shoot. And Nwora doesn’t mind if he does, delivering a soft-touch shot with an instant release. This observer believes Nwora is the best Louisville shooter since … well, how far back do you want to go?

Coach Chris Mack | Courtesy of UofL Athletics

But some of Nwora’s offensive prowess is probably coming from the satisfaction of playing better defense. That’s part basketball instinct, but mostly hustle. Not only does Nwora get steals and rebounds, he’s even keeping track of his man. Progress Mack calls “immense.”

“You always want your players to be prefect, and it’s not possible, but I’ve seen a change at least,” says Mack. “He’s not all the way there, but a change in terms of his mindset. I feel like when we first got here, he valued offense and just tolerated defense, and I don’t see that in Jordan anymore.”

And Mack thinks he knows why.

“I feel like great things happen with Jordan in that he feels accountable to his teammates. Not to his coach, or the coaching staff trying to guide him. He feels accountable to his teammates,” says Mack. “When you’re constantly getting beat and not giving the effort you should, and you start to feel a little guilty because of those guys you’re going to war with, that’s the motivating factor that’s hit him between the eyes, and it’s great to see.”

Certainly Mack has helped that along by getting his best player off the bench and into the fray. The coach has found an offense for Nwora that fits his star’s talent perfectly — shoot when you’re open.

Nwora is playing loose. Playing confidently.

“It’s really Coach Mack putting me in the right positions, sticking with me, putting a lot of trust in me,” says Nwora. “And as a result, I really put a lot of trust in him — and I really believe his system is going to put us in the best position to win. Regardless of me scoring the most, not scoring the most.”

Kentucky scouting report: Uh oh

This year’s UK team has some notable size. | Courtesy of UK Athletics

Kentucky is rounding into top form, coming off an impressive 80-72 triumph over North Carolina in a neutral court game last Saturday in the United Center in Chicago.

And looking ahead on the schedule.

“I heard the atmosphere is crazy in Kentucky, Louisville,” says 6-5 freshman Tyler Herro, who dropped in 15 points against North Carolina. “One of the fans told us when we got here: ‘You can lose every game, just not the Louisville game.’”

Guard Keldon Johnson says Kentucky is buying into what coach John Calipari calls a “willing passers” offense.

“We’ve definitely been working on passes,” says Johnson, a freshman who scored 21 against North Carolina. “While we’re doing that, you see our assists goes up and everybody’s happy. Jumping for joy.”

Kentucky bossed North Carolina close to the basket, and its big men fed each other. Sophomore forward P.J. Washington handed out eight assists, many to fellow big man Reid Travis, who tallied 20 points. Travis is a graduate transfer from Stanford, where he was third in scoring in the Pacific 10 Conference last year.

UK Coach John Calipari | Courtesy of UK Athletics

So it’s a slightly more mature Kentucky team than the usual pack of wildcatting freshmen Wildcats.

“We’re not the same team we were two weeks ago — it’s not even close,” says Calipari. “And hopefully, two weeks from now we’re not going to be the same team we are today. And that’s the process of every day let’s try to get better. You have games that are kind of tests that show you. We lost to Seton Hall, but we got better between the week before Seton Hall and Seton Hall. Hey, we just lost a buzzer beater.

“But that’s all I’m trying to do with this team,” Calipari continues. “If they will become a defensive-minded team, that’s (what) they are about, I think our offense is good enough, I really do.”

Trouble in Big Boy Land

Looking at the match-up, it is hard not to see that Kentucky (9-2) presents a huge challenge for Louisville (9-3). The Cats are good right where Louisville is only marginal — inside, in Big Boy Land.

Louisville has gotten glimpses of good play from 6-10 Steven Enoch and 6-11 Malik Williams. But Kentucky has more muscle. North Carolina has always been a great rebounding team, but Kentucky beat the Tar Heels on the boards and holds a 12- rebound average margin over opponents. Louisville’s is six.

Louisville’s start-up Cardinals are clicking into mid-season form. | Courtesy of UofL Athletics

And on offense, Kentucky has a legion of big men to keep away from the basket. Louisville forward Dwayne Sutton is 6-5 and will have his hands full barring Cats at the door.

Louisville also gives away inches at guard to Kentucky — and that will make it harder to score — especially if Calipari is able to slow Nwora down. If the game gets into the 70s and 80s, who also will score for Louisville?

On the other hand, if Louisville can keep the thing from turning into a track meet, it has just the kind of defense that’s needed for Kentucky. Keep ’em out of the paint.

To see Louisville win, you’d have to imagine several good things to happen, beginning with UofL guards Christen Cunningham and Darius Perry having big games.

Cunningham is slight in size, but he’s got a tricky sleight-of-hand technique — particularly going to the basket and scoring with little left-handed shots. (Try not to get those blocked too many times.)

Cunningham suffered a concussion in practice last week and sat out a game under the team’s precautionary concussion protocol. But one assumes he will be ready to go against Kentucky. He’s from Georgetown, Ky. 

Guard Perry is a better match for Kentucky brawn, and he can get his shot. The question for Perry, who has suffered from what we call “sophomoreitis,” is whether he can sink shots he’s been missing. And stay out of foul trouble.

Darius Perry | Courtesy of UofL Athletics

Calipari knows Perry is Louisville’s top defender, but he also knows Perry has a tendency to try too hard to totally shut down his man — landing himself in referee court.

Louisville does have replacements with defending guard Khwan Fore and shooting guard Ryan McMahon, so it might be OK outside.

The trouble will be inside. And if the Big Blue gets rolling up and down the court, you’ll hear the roar coming down out of the Yum Center rafters. Kentucky fans always find ways into opponents’ gyms — especially in Louisville.

And with the Pitino scandals putting a big dent into UofL’s season ticket sales, we imagine there will be maybe 4,000 Kentucky fans in attendance in the 22,000-seat arena Saturday. Almost like not a home-court advantage.

The big chance for Louisville is with Coach Mack. If one imagines a disciplined team making all the smart defensive plays — a game Mack perfected while coaching at Xavier -— with the thing played close to the vest, rather than up and down the court, Louisville might have a chance.

But Mack wasn’t biting into the pre-game talk-talk game last week.

“It’s a big game. Exited about it,” he said as he waved his way out of a press conference. “We’ll worry about Kentucky after Christmas. We got a really good team.”

But we’re pretty certain Louisville will need something special on defense.

Otherwise, Kentucky should win.

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