Good morning, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation, and welcome to Game Day. Today is the annual tilt between the Louisville Cardinals and the Kentucky Wildcats, and this will be the first time in the series that the Wildcats are not favored to win. That means we have to break a bunch of Louisville fan's hearts today, and nothing could possibly give me greater pleasure.
First, let's take a look at how the two teams stack up against each other this season
|Rank and Records
|Strength of Schedule
|RPI Top 50
The first thing to notice here is that Louisville appears to have played a tougher schedule than UK, and that is so. The actual ranks of their non-conference strength of schedule are 124 for Louisville and 213 for Kentucky. The SOS you see above is for the totality of the season based on today's standings, so it's a tiny bit misleading
The second thing to notice is that Kentucky is 0-1 in away games, and the Cardinals are 2-0, but only one of Louisville's road victories is really significant, and that is the one against the Memphis Tigers in the FedEx Forum.
Finally, both teams have lost to the same top 25 team, the Duke Blue Devils, by almost the same score, and both games were played at neutral sites.
Coming into this game, the Wildcats are 30-14 against our biggest rival, a very one-sided matchup. In modern history, since the renewal of the series in the original Dream Game in the 1983 NCAA Regional Final in Knoxville, the Wildcats have a 21-11 W/L record against Louisville, nearly 2 games won for every loss.
In the 3 full seasons John Calipari has coached Kentucky, the Wildcats are 4-0 against Louisville, including a victory in last year's Final Four in New Orleans. Rick Pitino is 4-7 against Kentucky as the coach of Louisville. When he was coach at Kentucky, he was 6-2 against the Cardinals.
Projected starting lineups:
|Little Rock, Ark
Gorgui Dieng is moving back into the starting lineup after having been out for seven games, since around Thanksgiving. In that stretch, the Cardinals went 6-1 including a road victory at Memphis, so the loss of Dieng did not hurt them much, although Cardinal fans will use his absence to argue the Duke loss.
Obviously, the guy that UK has to focus on defensively is Russ Smith. Smith has been putting up All-American numbers this year, and he'll have the ball in his hands a lot. Smith is #3 in the nation in possession percentage, so the Louisville offense really runs through him, not Dieng or Siva. Smith is a volume shooter who will get up a lot of shots, both in the paint and outside the arc, and is hitting threes at only an average rate of around 34%.
Defensively, Smith is a genuine stud, 11th in the nation in steals percent. Kentucky in general and Ryan Harrow in particular must be very careful with their ballhandling around Smith.
Peyton Siva is the ice that chills the Cardinal drink, or in his case, the hot water for the coffee. Siva is very quick and very experienced, and loves to get into the lane and get the ball to open shooters on the wing, or to Dieng and Chane Behanan inside. Siva is 28th in the nation in assist percentage, and is just behind Smith in steals percent. Siva has also made a decent 3-point percentage this year, almost 38%, which is a big improvement over last year.
Behanan is the power forward and dominant offensive rebounder on Louisville's squad, sucking up 14% of all OR's gathered. Dieng has an even higher percentage, but hasn't played enough games to be considered the leader. In reality, though, he is a very good offensive rebounder, and possibly even better than Behanan. Kentucky will be very hard pressed to keep these guys off the offensive glass.
The small forward for the Cardinals is Wayne Blackshear. Blackshear is largely a role player for the Cardinals, but a good one. He is a solid 3-point shooter at 36%, athletic and a decent defender, and doesn't turn the ball over much at all.
Off the bench, the main players are Luke Hancock, a 6'6", 200# junior swingman who, while he doesn't have a great percentage from 3, is a streaky shooter who can go 1-4 or 5-6, depending on the day. Kevin Ware is a 6'2", 175# sophomore who doesn't shoot a lot, but can make it from any spot on the floor. He will mostly spell Siva at the point.
Montrezl Harrell (pronounced "Montrez") is a6'8", 235# freshman with excellent athleticism who spells Behanan at the 4. Harrell is notable for the fact that he very sound fundamentally, and rarely does anything but help the team when he's in there. He's a good offensive and defensive rebounder and can score close to the basket.
Finally, there is junior Stephan Van Treese and sophomore Zach Price, 6'9"/245# and 6'10"/250# respectively, who spell Dieng briefly at center. Neither of these guys is a particular danger offensively or defensively, except they add to Louisville's considerable depth and provide additional fouls if needed.
The matchups in this game are fascinating. First of all, in the center spot, Nerlens Noel versus Dieng should provide almost as many fireworks as Dieng and Anthony Davis did in the Final Four last year. One advantage Noel has is that he is far quicker and more athletic than Dieng, but his disadvantage is that Dieng is just as long and much more experienced. Neither Van Treese or Price match up well with Noel or Willie Cauley-Stein, so the Cardinals will likely be at a disadvantage with Dieng out.
The real matchup issue for the Wildcats is Smith. Smith is very quick and aggressive, and the ideal matchup for him is Archie Goodwin, who is longer, just as athletic and nearly as quick. The problem is that "nearly" might not be near enough, and the other problem is who will guard the 6'5" Blackshear? So in all probability, either Harrow or Mays will be guarding Smith, and although Harrow is quick enough, I'm not sure he is strong enough to handle Smith's aggressiveness.
Alex Poythress and Behanan are a great matchup, almost as good as Noel-Dieng. Poythress is slightly smaller, but significantly quicker. Behanan is bigger all around and more experienced, but less talented than Poythress offensively. The questions here are, can either player stay out of foul trouble, and can Poythress bang with Behanan on the glass?
When it comes to bench play, Cauley-Stein is a player Louisville really doesn't have a matchup for, and when UK plays the big lineup, it introduces significant problems for the Cardinals, but also provides opportunities in terms of attacking the rim and drawing fouls. If Noel and Cauley-Stein can avoid foul troubles and challenge Louisville at the rim, it could be a very good lineup.
Finally, we have Kyle Wiltjer. He's mostly going to be played either by Behannan or Harrell off the bench, and neither one is a favorable matchup offensively. While not athletic, Wiltjer is getting better at using his body to get position, and he is significantly taller than Behanan and too dangerous on the perimeter for Harrell. Believe it or not, how Louisville defends Wiltjer could be a major factor in this game. If Wiltjer gets a lot of open looks and is on, he can really do damage to Louisville.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Four Factors actually favor Kentucky. Kentucky is a slightly better shooting team and Louisville a slightly better offensive rebounding team. Neither one turns the ball over much.
I wouldn't put a ton of stock into this, though, because of the schedule difficulty advantage Louisville has.
Well, here's where we get to it. As I discussed earlier this week, there are really two questions to be answered for this game: Can Kentucky keep turnovers low, and can the Wildcats rebound with the Cardinals?
The most important of the two is turnovers. The Cardinals are not a good defensive team, they are an elite, nearly legendary defensive team. They force an unheard-of 31% turnovers. What that means is that their opponents are only getting a shot of 7 times out of every ten possessions. If they do anything close to that against Kentucky, this game will be won by Louisville, and it won't be close.
Rebounding is important, but if Kentucky doesn't take care of the ball, winning on the offensive glass won't save them unless they utterly dominate the statistic.
Louisville's unusual defensive scheme, which is man-to-man mixed with a very aggressive matchup zone defense, creates problems for everybody. Louisville will often switch defenses based on a trigger in the middle of a possession from zone to man. It is a scheme which has really served Louisville well, and has had them at or near the top of Division I in defense for the last three years.
To attack this stingy Louisville defense, Kentucky must first recognize the defense they are in, and recognize when they switch. The Wildcats are going to have to utilize a lot of high screens to create driving lanes for Goodwin and Harrow, and pick-and-pop opportunities for Wiltjer. Spacing is critical for Kentucky on offense, and it has been a problem for them all year. Kentucky must also communicate better than they ever have when the defense switches, so that they can attack it properly. If they fail to do that, scoring against Louisville will be very hard.
Offensively, the Cardinals run a good bit of high-low post, along with baseline and headhunter screening action to free up Smith and Siva on the perimeter. Again, the key to defending this is communication, and Kentucky must realize that the willingness of the Cardinals to launch threes (Nearly 35% of their shots come from behind the arc), they are not particularly good at making them. But UK can't afford to bet on that in the Yum! Center, and they must force Louisville to drive into the paint and take shots inside the line where the shot blocking of Noel and Cauley-Stein can affect them.
The environment for today's game will be the most hostile since the Indiana Hoosiers game last year given the 4-game losing streak the Cards are on. Typically, though, Louisville fans are much better behaved than Indiana fans, to their great credit, and even though this environment is going to be loud and tough, I don't expect any court-storming or Wildcats fan-injuring. Taunts back and forth is about the worst we should expect to see. Kentucky-Louisville has almost always been more of a cold detestation than a hot hatred.
Well, that's what we have. I know it is probably blatant homerism, but to paraphrase Gimli, son of Glóin, from the Lord of the Rings, I will be dead before I pick Louisville over Kentucky in this game. Wildcats by 3 in the end.