We've already seen this game once this year, and the ‘Cats were on the winning end of it in Rupp Arena. Despite big games in the first half from Russ Smith and Chris Jones, and a second half without Julius Randle, James Young and Andrew Harrison stepped up to the plate and carried Kentucky to a 73-66 victory in Rupp Arena.
Now the two rivals are facing off in the NCAA tournament again for the second time in three seasons, this time in the Sweet Sixteen. The winner gets Michigan or Tennessee. I think the Wildcats have the advantage and will advance. Here is why:
Kentucky's size is going to be a problem for whichever team they face from here on out unless they face off against Baylor, Florida or Arizona. The Cardinals just cannot match Kentucky's length at the guard positions or inside. I think the key positions for size will be the guard spots and the three. Andrew and Aaron Harrison tower over Jones and Smith and could use their size to bully their way to the rim and get to the foul line like they have been doing all through the tournament. James Young will be matched up with Luke Hancock, who he has a size advantage as well as an overall speed and athletic advantage. These advantages for Young should give Hancock fits on the offensive and defensive ends of the court.
Kentucky is a Great Rebounding Team, Louisville is Not:
This cannot be overlooked. Kentucky lives off of offensive rebounding and second chance points. The ‘Cats are fifth in the nation in the offensive rebounding category and nineteenth in defensive rebounding ; in contrast, the Cardinals are 41st in offensive rebounding and 145th in defensive rebounding. A disparity like that cannot be overlooked. Kentucky should eat Louisville alive on the offensive boards and get second chance points galore.
Kentucky is Finding their Groove at the Charity Stripe:
Back on December 28th, the ‘Cats shot a woeful 53% at the free throw line, going 16-30 and leaving a lot of points on the floor. The margin of victory would have been much higher if they would have converted the freebie baskets. Kentucky has shot a ton of free throws all season long, and I expect that trend to continue due to their size and Louisville's slap, grab, clutch defense. The Wildcats are shooting 67% from the free throw line going back to the first game in the SEC tournament up until now and 70% in their two games combined in the NCAA tournament. Those are numbers that one likes to see.
The Back Court Advantage is a Myth:
The prevailing thought going into the first game between these teams was that while Kentucky has the advantage inside, Louisville has the clear cut advantage at the guard positions. That was answered by James Young, Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison combing for 46 points in the first meeting. And the scary thing is that Andrew and Aaron are playing better basketball now than they were then. While Smith and Jones are good in their own right and Terry Rozier has been giving the Cardinals good production off of the bench, they haven't had near that production in the tournament thus far against guards that are not as good as the three that Kentucky will throw at them on Friday night. Louisville has two really good guards, Kentucky has three.
Depth will be an Issue for Louisville:
Motrezl Harrell is a beast, there is no doubt about it. But he has been prone to foul trouble in the past and he was negated in the first meeting for that specific reason and had only six points and two rebounds against the big boys for Kentucky. Steven Van Treese is called "Big Hustle" but hustling is all he really does well. If Harrell and Van Treese get into foul trouble, you can almost shut the door on Louisville. If those two go out, then Mangok Mathiang will play the center spot and 6-5 Wayne Blackshear will move to power forward: that is a great scenario for the Wildcats. While Kentucky has four legitimate starters that all play on the post, Louisville has only two. Julius Randle absolutely dominated the first half of that game as he took Harrell, Mathiang, Hancock, Van Treese and Chane Behanan to the rim with ease. And now with Chane Behanan off of the team for Louisville, the depth advantage is that much greater for Kentucky.
Willie Cauley-Stein is a Game Changer:
Louisville has no answer for Cauley-Stein and he has to play well for the ‘Cats. He can be the difference in the middle on defense that neutralizes the driving abilities of Russ Smith and Chris Jones. WCS also was very impressive in the first match up as he came out to the perimeter multiple times to guard Chris Jones and did so in an impressive manner. His skill and athleticism inside is a great advantage for the Wildcats.
The Wildcats are Playing Better Basketball:
The Cardinal faithful kept chirping about the eye test after Selection Sunday as they pounded their chests after beating the likes of Houston and Rutgers. But since then, they no longer want to discuss the eye test as they have played some pretty poor basketball in the opening weekend of the tournament. They aren't scoring at the clip that they were in the AAC as their shooting percentages have plummeted due to the fact that they are being guarded by teams with an upgrade is size and talent. Kentucky has taken steps forward as a team since the game in December and are playing more complete basketball. You can throw out all of the Ken Pomeroy numbers and any other computer statistics that talking heads want to use because, in all honesty, Louisville was playing a mid-major schedule during the regular season. The SEC isn't the best basketball conference in the world, but I would argue that the teams are far better than the ones coming out of the AAC as a whole. Kentucky looks, and are playing, like the better team right now.
If the Wildcats were playing any team besides Louisville, I would not be the least bit nervous about this game. And I'm actually less nervous about this game than I was about the Wichita State game because I think the Shockers are a much better basketball team than Louisville. This game, to me, is about match ups and skill. I think Kentucky has better players than Louisville at four out of five positions on the floor and a much, much better bench.
The narrative about L1C4 vs. Players First is overblown at this point. Kentucky proved that a young team can defeat a team of three and four year players when they defeated the quintessential four year program on Sunday. This game isn't going to come down to experience, it's going to come down to talent and flat out want to win attitude. The Cardinals will have all of the pressure as the favorites and as the defending champs. But Gorgui Dieng and Peyton Siva aren't walking through that door. They were the heart and soul of that team as well as the brains behind the operations.
The Wildcats have to be feeling good about their chances as they have already defeated this team and now that they are 2-0 in the tournament against better competition than the Cards have faced.
Like Calipari says, if I'm given the choice of talent and experience, I'm going to take talent every time. He's been proven right once already this week.