The Kentucky Wildcats travel to South Bend tonight to lace them up against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. This is the renewal of a long-running series that began in 1929, and has been continuously renewed several times in every decade since. The 'Cats and the Irish have met a total of 60 times throughout the years, and 42 of those have been decided in favor of Kentucky.
The last meeting between these two well-acquainted schools was two years ago at Freedom Hall in Louisville, a game I was privileged to attend. This is the first game Kentucky has played in South Bend since the 2009 NIT tournament, a game that Kentucky lost, and which would be the swan song of former coach Billy Gillispie at Kentucky.
Let's begin by looking at the top-level ranking comparison, courtesy of Statsheet.com:
|Rank and Records||UK||ND|
|Strength of Schedule||#162||#225|
|RPI Top 50||0-1||1-0|
Notre Dame's only loss is to Phil Martelli's St. Joseph's Hawks, and that is not a bad loss at all. Ken Pomeroy only had Notre Dame at 58% to win that game, essentially the same as where Kentucky finds itself tonight.
Players To Watch
The leading scorer and rebounder for Notre Dame is big Jack Cooley, a 6'9" 250# senior forward that looks and plays like the second coming of former Irish star Luke Harangody. He isn't quite as skilled as Harangody was, but he is plenty good enough and is one of the very best offensive rebounders in the country, currently 3rd in OR% in the nation. Cooley is a load on the offensive end and is going to give the UK front line a lot of trouble.
Cooley's front-court mate is 6'8", 218# senior forward Scott Martin, who averages 8.2 points and 8 rebounds per game, and shoots 42% from outside the 3-point line. Martin is more of a role player, and is a very good defensive rebounder and defender
6'5", 202# junior guard Jerian Grant is the second leading scorer on the team and a deadly 3-point shooter at 39% His back-court mate is 6'2" junior guard Eric Atkins, the point guard, who averages 10.3 points/game and shoots a smooth 45% from three. If you are getting the idea that the Irish back-court is dangerous from the perimeter, you would be correct. 6'5" 212# sophomore swingman Pat Connaughton rounds out the backcourt, averaging 8 points, 4 rebounds and shooting 34% from the arc.
The Notre Dame bench is also full of quality, and senior center Garrick Sherman is Cooley's relief off the bench at 6'10#, 246# and averaging 11 points and 5 rebounds. You may remember Sherman from his days as a Michigan St. Spartan, from whence he transferred after the 2011 season. Cameron Biedscheid is a 6'7" 186# freshman forward who gets lots of time and averages close to 8 points and 2 rebounds, and can also stroke it at 32% from three.
As a team, Notre Dame is one of the better shooting teams in the land at 37% from the perimeter and 55% inside the arc. Notre dame also defends the 2 very well, currently #22 in the nation and allowing opponents to shoot only 39.5% from inside the arc. They are big, physical, and exactly the type of team that is built to give this tender young Wildcats team trouble.
Defensively, Notre Dame plays a mix of man and zone, and we will see a lot of switching defense from the Irish tonight. Notre Dame also does a good job of not sending teams to the line a lot, a record which will be sorely tested tonight against the Wildcats. Neither team is a particularly good free throw shooting team although both are adequate from the line, however Kentucky figures to get there a lot more often than Notre Dame.
Tempo-wise this Irish team likes to play at a nice, even pace, rather slower than Kentucky likes to play. The Wildcats will want to run a lot given their athletic makeup and it will be a challenge for the Irish to keep up.
Four Factors to Winning:
As you can see above, the Wildcats are more efficient on offense and getting to the line (which is a big component of their offensive efficiency), while Notre Dame is a better offensive rebounding team. Neither team turns the ball over a lot, because neither team really plays a pressure style of defense, although don't be surprised if Mike Brey tries some of that in hopes of disconcerting the young Wildcats.
This is Kentucky's first game in a hostile environment this year where the crowd is overwhelmingly against them. During the Barclays Center Classic in New York, where Maryland had a slight attendance advantage, the crowd seemed to bother Kentucky a bit when the game got close. How far they have come in that area will be exposed for sure tonight.
Look for Kentucky to try to force things off the dribble, and for the Irish to sit back mostly in a zone. If Kentucky can shoot them out of the zone, it will be a very long night for Notre Dame, as defending players like Archie Goodwin off the dribble is the nightmare scenario for them. Kentucky will try to run, but in order to do that, they have to get defensive rebounds, and Kentucky has rarely rebounded well so far this year.
I expect a close, competitive game with plenty of back and forth. The Wildcats have an athletic advantage, but just like the Duke Blue Devils, the Irish are very mature, if not as highly skilled as Duke. How well Kentucky can penetrate the Notre Dame zone without drawing a bunch of charges will have a lot to do with how well Kentucky will perform. Kentucky must also guard against the three-point shot, because Notre Dame shoots it well. Interior defense has to be solid as well, because Jack Cooley is an excellent interior scorer and is bigger and stronger than the Kentucky opponents.
This is a great measuring stick for Kentucky, because while Notre Dame is good, they aren't top ten good. This is a game that the Wildcats need for their national profile, and a loss here could be hard to make up later when Kentucky is trying to get that ever-elusive #1 seed.
In other words, this is a big, important early-season test for the 'Cats.