Well, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation, in the parlance of horse racing so famous and beloved in the Bluegrass, "And down the stretch they come!" Tonight, the Kentucky Wildcats embark upon their quest to bring the eighth NCAA Tournament title back to Lexington and to our fair Commonwealth. The first task set before them in this campaign is to come to the home arena of their arch-foes, the Louisville Cardinals, and send fellow Bluegrass state tourney participant, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, back to Bowling Green with one win and plenty of memories.
As most of you know, Western is my alma mater, and this game is always bittersweet at best and painful at worst as far as my rooting interests are concerned. How does one pull for their favorite team when they are facing their former college? The best I can do is provide an objective assessment of both teams, and let the chips fall where they may.
The 'Toppers are the only team in the tournament with an under .500 record, and they got into the field of 64 by surprising the Sun Belt and winning the conference tournament. At 16-18 coming into this game, WKU is an extremely young team with a brand new coach in Ray Harper, who replaced Ken McDonald at the helm midseason this year. Harper is the former Kentucky Wesleyan coach, who was serving as an assistant to McDonald during his tenure.
Since Harper took over the reigns, the young Hilltoppers are 8-3, and have won their last 7 in a row including a wild comeback victory over Sean Woods' Mississippi Valley St.team just two nights ago.
Personnel and Statistics:
|Kahlil McDonald||Sixth man||Sr.||G||34||23.7||2.3||7.1||32.1||1.5||5.1||29.7||2.1||2.5||84.5||0.3||1.9||2.2||1.4||1.4||0.5||0.1||2.0||8.2|
|Kevin Kaspar||Maj. Res.||Fr.||G||20||18.6||1.8||4.7||37.2||1.1||2.9||36.2||1.0||1.2||79.2||0.3||1.6||1.9||1.3||1.3||0.6||0.0||1.2||5.5|
|Nigel Snipes||Maj. Res.||Fr.||F||31||16.3||1.4||3.5||38.2||0.3||1.3||23.1||0.8||1.0||83.9||0.8||1.6||2.4||0.5||1.1||0.4||0.3||2.3||3.8|
|Vinny Zollo||Maj. Res.||Fr.||F||34||15.4||1.4||3.5||40.3||0.6||1.6||34.5||0.4||0.6||70.0||1.3||1.6||2.9||0.5||1.1||0.2||0.5||1.6||3.8|
Western Kentucky: Caden Dickerson -- Out for season with shoulder injury.
WKU Strengths vs. UK
- Getting to the line: Western Kentucky is one of the better teams in FTA/FGA at 41%
- 3-point defense: WKU is a solid squad against the three.
WKU Weaknesses vs. UK
Statistically, there are too many to enumerate. Kentucky is statistically a vastly superior team.
Kentucky Strengths vs. WKU
See just above
Kentucky Weaknesses vs. WKU
- If the Wildcats have a weakness against the 'Toppers, it will be not taking them seriously. This Western team is young, fearless, has nothing to lose and everything to gain. They didn't expect to be here. If UK takes them lightly, it could be disastrous.
Key Matchups for Kentucky:
- Derrick Gordon is a good-sized freshman guard who is physical and loves to get to the rim. He is a remarkable rebounder for his size, and UK has to make sure they respect his ability.
- George Fant is a tough-minded kid who is fearless around the basket despite his lack of size. Kentucky must block this guy off the offensive glass, as he is the best offensive rebounder on the team.
Key Matchups for WKU
- Anthony Davis. While Teeng Akol has the length to match up with Davis on paper, he isn't even a starter. Which makes us all wonder how the Hilltoppers will guard Davis?
- Terrence Jones. Too much size. Much too much strength.
Western is a very small, scrappy, defensive-minded team. There are so many statistical mismatches against Kentucky that they aren't worth mentioning, but the 'Toppers do get to the line a lot, which has to be a concern for Coach Cal and the Wildcats.
Unfortunately, the Hilltoppers are one of the smallest teams in Division I, coming in at 294th in effective height. How they figure to score inside the arc against the shot blocking prowess of Terrence Jones and Anthony Davis is a mystery. Which leads me to believe they will try to force Kentucky into a track meet and hope they can harass them into turnovers and get open looks from outside.
Unfortunately, Western is just not a good 3-point shooting team, which means they will shoot lights-out against Kentucky. But even if they do, it will be very tough for them to get second shots with Kentucky's length, and anything inside the paint looks really fraught with hazard.
Kentucky can lose this game only by being overconfident, playing lackadaisical and soft, and giving Western hope. We haven't seen that much, but there is still room for doubt that the Wildcats are as focused as they need to be.