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Which Team Brings The Most Advantages Into The Louisville Cardinals-Kentucky Wildcats Game?

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Looking at the Kentucky-Louisville contest From 50,000 feet.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Here we are again, as in every season, Wildcats fans — Louisville week. Yeah, I know some people call this "hate week" and use all sorts of hashtags and such. I’m not into using "hate" to describe my feelings toward Louisville, but there is no doubt plenty of mutual detestation between the two school’s fans. Really, though, I think we just want to beat each other — in my case, I hope we beat them like a rented mule. I hope the players feel the same way.

In the unlikely event Louisville goes all "deer in the headlights" against the Wildcats like UCLA did, I want to see Kentucky do exactly the same thing they did to the Bruins — only for two halves, and from tip to horn. Yeah, that’s a little bit unsportsmanlike, I guess, but it has nothing to do with hate. For me, it’s more like proving yourself as emphatically as possible against a team that deserves a beat-down. I don’t really think UCLA deserved it, but Louisville absolutely does for two reasons; a) they’d do it to us if they could, and b) it’s so much fun to beat them and then smile disdainfully when they attempt smack talk.

So now that I’ve validated my Big Blue bona fides by demonstrating my scorn for, and desire to ruthlessly thrash the Cardinals, let me say that I have nothing but respect for their team and their program. Louisville is a worthy foe (as hard as some of us try to deny it) and there’s no doubt in my mind that this is the greatest rivalry in college basketball.

Yes, I think UNC-Duke has a case for being the best rivalry as well, and I’ll be the first to admit that my partisan rooting interest doubtlessly clouds my judgment on this point. For a fact, all four teams play very hard against each other every time they meet, and the fans of all four schools are passionate and involved. I just think a once-per-year rivalry (even if UK and U of L have met twice in the NCAA Tournament in the last six years) carries more meaning than a conference rivalry. Even when Tennessee (Kentucky’s historic conference rival) was very good, the rivalry with Louisville always outshone it. Nobody really clamors for a third or fourth UNC-Duke meeting in the NCAA Tournament, but everybody seems to want Louisville and Kentucky to play again every season.

Reasons why Kentucky will win

What will this year’s game look like? Well, we have plenty of time to talk about that, and talk about it we will, but from 50,000 feet, you’d have to like Kentucky’s chances. Consider:

  • The Wildcats under John Calipari have won every game they’ve played at the KFC Yum! Center but one, and that Yum! Center win in 2012 was the lone win by Louisville since Calipari came to Lexington. So you can argue convincingly that Calipari has Rick Pitino’s number.

  • Then there is the fact that Kentucky, for the first time since 2011-12, brings back a significant part of the core of a team that got all the way to the NCAA Tournament final last season, getting past Louisville in the Sweet Sixteen to do so. This is a team with experience beating the Cardinals, having done so twice last season, augmented with arguably better players than they lost.

  • There are the numbers, which tell a tale also:

    • Kentucky is the best 2-point defensive team in the country by a mile. Louisville allows opponents to shoot a full 7.2% better from two, 37.8 to 31.6% Kentucky also defends the three better, against better competition.

    • Kentucky shoots better from two, and better from three, than Louisville against better competition.

    I’m going to stop there, because this is not about statistics; still, you have to mention it in a broad perspective.

  • The talent is also an issue. There is no doubt at all that Louisville is talented, but they aren’t as talented as Kentucky and it isn’t objectively close. Kentucky has nine McDonalds All-Americans on the team. Louisville has one; Wayne Blackshear. The Cardinals have only one player on their roster at the moment that wasn’t ranked a 4-star from Rivals.com. But they are facing 5-star players at Kentucky — all but Willie Cauley-Stein, who like Montrezl Harrell for the Cardinals (a fellow 4-star), might be the best players on their respective teams.

  • Then, there is the size. Whether size matters in matters of human sexuality has been a long-running debate, but nowhere in the universe does it matter more than in basketball. Louisville has significant size in their front court, but it is just not as big or as skilled as Kentucky’s. In the back court, the Cardinals are significantly smaller with only one guard at 6‘5" or taller, where Kentucky only has one guard who gets significant minutes under 6‘5".

  • Next is Louisville’s pressing, trapping matchup zone. It has paid huge dividends every season. For the last five seasons including this one, Louisville has been in the top five defensive teams in the country, and this is the first time that Kentucky, even considering their NCAA Tournament championship team, has been in the top five.

    Yet only once during that time have the Cardinals managed to defeat Kentucky anywhere; at home in 2012-13, UK’s NIT season. In other words, Louisville’s defense has not produced wins against Kentucky regardless of how good it is, and this year, Kentucky’s defense is even better than that of the Cardinals. It’s always possible that this season may break the mold, but Louisville has not been able beat Kentucky by being great defensively.

  • Kentucky’s experience gives them an edge in this game. Last season, Kentucky had only Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress as the only two ever having played a true college road game. Now, all but four of UK’s players have done so.

  • Kentucky this year doesn’t mind playing rough. The Big Blue Bahamas pitted Kentucky against some teams that tried to rough them up inside, and they’ve played some very physical teams this season so far. They won’t be intimidated by the rough stuff that the Cardinals always seem to bring to the game.

  • As good as Harrell has been this season, the Cardinals only have one of him, he still only gets five fouls, and he has to guard a dangerous offensive player no matter who he checks.  Also, WCS has arguably been just as good.

Reasons why Louisville will win

  • They’re due. That sometimes matters, but not always. I’ve been surprised how many times "due" teams seem to pull the upset, and by most lights, this wouldn’t be a huge upset even if it did happen.

  • They’re at home. Louisville, like most teams, enjoys a significant home court advantage. But that edge has been very, very weak against Kentucky. Louisville leads only 8-7 at home vs. 13-4 for Kentucky at Rupp since the renewal of the series.

  • They’re hungry. They should be — they’ve only eaten 5 times this century in 16 tries.

  • They’re more experienced. Even though the gap is smaller than usual, Louisville still has more college experience per player than Kentucky does.

  • It’s Kentucky’s first true road game this season, and it comes against UK’s most bitter rival. The Wildcats will not see an environment this hostile again all year, in all likelihood.

  • Kentucky has injuries. UK will miss Alex Poythress, but even without him, Kentucky is still the deepest, most talented, and best defensive team in America. The offense has actually improved since Alex’s injury, although that is most likely a coincidence.  On the flip side, Akoy Agau has left Louisville's team; not exactly a balancing loss, since he saw almost no time this season, but it's five fewer fouls by a big man available to them.

On balance, Kentucky has more going for it than against it. Last season was a very ripe opportunity for Louisville to take out the Wildcats against a thinner, less experienced team. This season, the Cardinals are fighting an uphill battle against the deepest, most talented, best team in the country, perhaps historically so. It’s a tall order, pardon the pun.

Having said that, Louisville could win anyway. They have enough talent to do it if they play well and Kentucky does not. UK probably can’t spot them 11 points and still win like they did against Columbia. It is also very unlikely that Kentucky will come in as uninspired as they did against the Lions, and the difference between Kentucky’s perimeter play then and now is stark.

So don’t worry, be happy, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation. While it is possible that Louisville could play their best game of the year and eke out a win, or Kentucky could lay an egg and beat themselves, I like our position much, much better than that of our avowed foe.