Opponent: Kentucky Wildcats
Game Location: Rupp Arena – Lexington, Ky.
Tip Off: 4:07 pm
Head Coach: John Calipari (5th Season)
TV: CBS with Jim Nantz and Greg Anthony on the call
Radio: 84-WHAS with Doug Ormay and Bob Valvano on the call
Last Meeting: Louisville 80, Kentucky 77 (December 29th, 2012)
All-Time Series: Kentucky leads 30-15
Spread: Louisville – 2
Officials: Tony Greene, Mark Whitehead, Doug Sirmons
Russ Smith – G 6’0, 175 lbs
Chris Jones – G 5’10, 175 lbs
Wayne Blackshear – F 6’5, 230 lbs
Montrezl Harrell – F 6’8, 235 lbs
Mangok Mathiang – C 6’11, 220 lbs
Aaron Harrison – G 6’6, 215 lbs
Andrew Harrison – G 6’6, 215 lbs
Julius Randle – F 6’9, 250 lbs
James Young – F 6’6, 215 lbs
Willie Cauley-Stein – C 7’0, 245 lbs
Well, it’s that time of the year again. When the state of Kentucky clearly divides itself into two distinct entities and prepares to go into a Civil War of sorts. To the victor goes bragging rights for 364 days and a signature win in which to pad their resume. To the loser, 364 days of jeers, public lashing and yet another game against a marquee opponent without coming out on top. The coaches will argue that the game is meaningless. The players will tell you how they know the guys on the opposing team from AAU and how the rivalry is more for the fans. But you and I know both know that’s nothing but deceit. Deep inside the hearts of both John Calipari and Rick Pitino burns a fiery competitiveness and a disdain for one another that transcends the culture of college basketball. On the surface they act like “friends” or “colleagues.” But their relationship is predicated more around cynicism, back-handed compliments and jealousy than anything else. True, this game won’t count towards a regular season conference Championship and, unlike college football, an early season loss can actually help you in the long run. But don’t be fooled by coach-speak and hyperbole. A loss for Louisville would signal the fact that Calipari has established total domination in the rivalry since arriving in Lexington. A loss for Kentucky would mean that Pitino and the Cards have solved the one-and-done riddle and have clearly seized the recent momentum in the series after losing the first four. The fans want it badly, and despite what they say, so do these players and coaches.
For the season Kentucky is averaging 81.5 points per game (34th in the nation), 44.1 rebounds per game (7th in the nation) and they’re shooting 48% from the field (43rd in the nation). According to KenPom.com, the Cats rank 12th overall (6th in total adjusted offense and 46th in total adjusted defense). This is a team that has dominated the glass and created tons of second-chance opportunities from offensive rebounds and tip-outs. In fact, UK is 5th in the nation in rebounding margin at +12.5 and they’re 6th in the nation in blocked shots per game (7.4). They don’t particularly share the ball well (12.7 assists per game – 202nd in the nation) so the Cards will need to just stay at home and not try to over-extend their defense.
Kentucky will enter Saturday’s match-up having won two straight at home after dropping a December 14th road test at North Carolina (82-77). In their most recent action, the Cats slipped past a feisty Belmont team, 93-80, and were led by freshman power forward Julius Randle who finished with 29 points and 10 rebounds. Randle, UK’s leading scorer at 18.2 per game, has scored in double figures in all 12 games and has 9 double-doubles. The 6’9, 250 lb, future lottery pick is perhaps the most talented player in the country and easily the best forward that Louisville has seen up to this point. Unless he gets in early foul trouble (as was the case in Chapel Hill) he’s virtually unstoppable on the blocks and a relentless fighter in the post. He’s already shot 112 free-throws (making 82 of them, good for 73%) and finds ways to score or get to the charity stripe. Pitino has been a master at attacking big men over the years and formulating a game-plan towards slowing down effective post players. But I’m not sure he’s seen a player with the skills and motor of Randle since his days as an NBA coach. It will be imperative for Montrezl Harrell and Chane Behanan to stand their ground and not get into quick foul trouble. If one (or both) get an early whistle, it could be a long night for the Louisville front court.
Joining Randle in the post is the “veteran” of the starting line-up, sophomore 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein. At this point, it’s hard to totally predict what type of offensive output you’ll get from Cauley-Stein from night to night (9.3 ppg and 8 rpg), but his defense and shot-blocking ability have been consistently strong. He’s blocked as many as 9 shots in a single outing (Providence, December 1st) and is currently averaging over 4 a game. It’ll be interesting to see how Pitino schemes for Cauley-Stein (defensively) in the high post. Mangok Mathiang and Stephan Van Treese are clearly at a disadvantage, but both are pretty solid passers from the free-throw line extended, so perhaps the UofL staff will try to lure Cauley-Stein away from the rim and take away his ability to collapse and help on dribble-penetration. From an offensive standpoint, he’s not much of a threat aside from put-backs and back-screens for alley-oops, so I would expect Pitino to throw plenty of junk zone at him, particularly if he touches the ball in the high post.
In the backcourt, it’s almost like everyone has already decided that Louisville has the clear advantage and that UK won’t be able to stay in front of Russ Smith and Chris Jones. And defensively speaking, that might be true. But after watching the recent performance of Andrew and Aaron Harrison, I think they will pose an enormous problem offensively for the much-smaller Jones and Smith. At 6’6 and a solid 215 lbs, Aaron Harrison has emerged as an outstanding scorer for the Cats. Second on the team in scoring at 15.2 ppg, he’s put together back-to-back games of at least 20 points. He’s shooting it at a solid clip from the outside (a respectable 31% from the three-point line) but it’s been his game off the bounce that’s vastly improved. He’s so physically gifted, he’s able to use his body to bump his way into the lane, create contact and either still finish or get to the free-throw line. Smith, who will likely be tasked with guarding Aaron when the Cards are not in a zone, will have to use his quickness to create deflections and ensure that he doesn’t give up easy baskets through penetration.
Andrew Harrison (who had 7 points, 0 assists and 2 turnovers in his last outing against Belmont) is definitely the easier twin to scheme against. No knock to his talent, because he certainly has plenty of it and, if anything, was the more heralded recruit coming out of high school. But I’ve found his play to be erratic at times. For the season he’s averaging 10.6 points, 2.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. He doesn’t turn the ball over a ton (just 29 on the season; a bit over 2 per game), and he shoots a better percentage from long range than his brother (33%), but it’s not necessarily his offense that has been the problem. I’ve seen smaller guards go around him and I’ve seen 2’s and 3’s that are his same size go through him. He’s struggled on defense and he’s going to be tasked with trying to stop Russ Smith and / or Chris Jones. That could be a problem for the youngster.
At the small forward spot, I think James Young (13.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg) presents quite possibly the most difficult match-up for Louisville. Young, a wiry, fluid, 6’6 lefty, is the best (or certainly most prolific and streaky) long-range shooter on this Kentucky team. If he gets hot he can extend the Cards’ defense and open things up for Cauley-Stein and Randle underneath. Unlike Louisville, the Cats are much more adept at entering the ball into the post as part of their primary offensive sets, particularly if Young gets going from outside. I also have a distinct feeling that we’ll see more of Wayne Blackshear than Luke Hancock on Saturday. If we’re being honest, the Final Four’s MOP is just not up to snuff defensively and even though Young isn’t great off the dribble, he uses screens well and knows how to get open. Pitino will need a reliable defender to shadow him and stay close. Blackshear fits that mold.
Looking at the benches for both teams, depending on how the whistles go at Rupp, they could sort of cancel each other out. I think both sides will shorten their rotation and you’ll see Pitino and Calipari go with the 6-7 guys they absolutely trust the most. For Louisville that means less of Kevin Ware and Stephan Van Treese and more of Chane Behanan and Montrezl Harrell playing together. For UK, it could mean a more steady dose of Alex Poythress (4.7 ppg, 6 rpg), the 6’9 power forward who’s been through this rivalry before. Louisville has the deeper bench with more experience, but as everyone with a pulse has noted, will it be enough to overcome a team with more long-term talent?
In the end, I think this thing is a coin-flip. In a way, North Carolina provided a blueprint on how to attack Louisville’s defense and their long, lanky, athletic frontcourt gave Pitino fits all day. Factor in early foul trouble for Harrell, and the negatives were too many to overcome. Also of note, the Tar Heels let Russ Smith and Chris Jones combine for 56 points – yet the Cards still lost. That tells me that the backcourt thing that everyone keeps talking about, while certainly important, may not be the deciding factor. You saw what happened when Randle got into foul trouble against North Carolina two weeks ago. The Heels are the only common opponent between UK and UofL at this point and in each instance their star forward was virtually a non-factor. Each team lost. Coincidence? Maybe. But I think whichever team’s frontcourt can withstand foul trouble and get to the free-throw line more often, will ultimately win this game. Rupp Arena will have its most raucous crowd of the year, but the experience of this Louisville team should help to weather the storm. If the Cards can move their feet, not slap at the ball-handlers on defense and keep Randle off the free-throw line, they have the ability to eek out a win on the road.
Louisville 84, Kentucky 81