This is it, Kentucky fans — the annual renewal of the annual rivalry game with the Louisville Cardinals, and as a bonus this season, both teams enter this game undefeated and mostly unchallenged, at least at full strength. Kentucky has played the tougher schedule so far, but Louisville has beaten some good teams as well. This is unquestionably the most highly-anticipated game of the 2014-15 season.
With all the anticipation and excitement surrounding this game, the two combatants have more history as constituted this season than perhaps in any other season during John Calipari’s tenure at Kentucky. Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress have both been through this game three times prior to today, and the Harrison Twins, Marcus Lee, Dominique Hawkins, Derek Willis and Dakari Johnson have experienced Louisville twice. Only Poythress and WCS have ever played in the KFC Yum! Center.
The younger guys have surely received some indoctrination from the returning players, and I’m sure they’re well aware of the rivalry and its implications. Of course, the Kentucky guys (Hawkins, Willis, the walk-ons) are steeped in the rivalry and get it completely. The out-of-state players likely have a different perspective, but in the end, it’s another basketball game that needs winning.
Essentials for a Kentucky win
Handle the press. This is trite, and the Louisville press hasn’t been particularly effective against the Harrison Twins. In neither game last season did Louisville force Kentucky into 20% turnovers.
It is the Cardinals, this season, who have been having turnover problems. I wonder if Kentucky’s press will bother them more than theirs bothers the Wildcats?
Attack the rim. It’s really important for Kentucky to penetrate the paint and force Louisville into rotation, because the fastest way to get Louisville out of this game is to get them into foul trouble.
Keep Montrezl Harrell off the offensive glass. Harrell is a very good offensive rebounder, and he’s a quick jumper. At 6‘8", he’s going to be at a size disadvantage against everybody Kentucky puts out there, but he’s an energy player who knows positioning and is relentless.
Force somebody other than Terry Rozier to shoot the three. Louisville has other players who can make it, but Rozier is the only one who can make bothered threes. UK needs to force him to put it on the floor.
Defend in transition. Transition is the one place that Louisville has a significant advantage — they are really quick to get into it and they get a lot of baskets from transition, both inside and out. UK really needs to watch their spacing, and make sure wing shooters are accounted for on the break.
Make free throws. The Wildcats have been up and down this season at the line, and today, they need to be efficient.
Communicate. When Kentucky communicates on defense, they are incredibly tough to score on in the half court. When they communicate on offense, points seem to come almost effortlessly.
This is a tough Louisville team, and no matter how much of an advantage Kentucky might think it has, Louisville is going to try to overcome it with sheer effort and intensity, something they are really good at doing. Kentucky has to forget about all the accolades, the line, and the hype. They need to play Louisville as if they are the only team standing between them and the NCAA Tournament championship, because come March, they just might be.