The Wildcats (9-2) are coming off of their most impressive showing this season. Head coach John Calipari and his talented team took down the then ninth-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels in Chicago’s CBS Sports Classic.
The win was as quality as any fan could have dreamed of, as the Wildcats dominated in every phase of the game. Keldon Johnson led the way in scoring with 23 points and Ashton Hagans tied the program’s single-game record with eight steals en route to earning SEC freshman of the week honors.
As for the Cardinals, they boast a quality record of their own (9-3) with their most recent win coming last Friday against Robert Morris. Jordan Nwora led the Cardinals with 19 points in the win.
This Saturday, Kentucky will look to make it two in a row against Louisville. Last December, the Wildcats made quick work of the Cardinals (90-61) in a blowout win at Rupp Arena.
With the Cardinals appearing to be much-improved under first-year head coach Chris Mack, this particular game may be much closer than the rankings show. Louisville kept the game close against the third-ranked Tennessee Volunteers on November 21st and lost by only one to the 23rd-ranked Indiana Hoosiers in Bloomington on December 8th.
With both teams looking to enter conference play with momentum, the staff at A Sea of Blue reconvene their roundtable to discuss the match-up.
Kentucky fans won’t want to hear this, but Louisville is back on the upswing. Chris Mack is a respectable coach doing a great job revamping the Cardinals basketball program. The team sits at 9-3 and had a one-point loss on the road against a ranked Indiana team.
What Kentucky fans will want to hear is that their team is also trending upwards. The Cats put together a complete performance against North Carolina thriving in almost every phase of the game. That sets up what will likely be an extremely competitive battle with rival Louisville.
The home team has taken the last two games in this series with Kentucky demolishing the Cards at Rupp last season. Looking ahead to 2018, it should be quite the game at the Yum Center. Expect a back and forth match-up, but at the end of the day the Wildcats have more firepower than the rival Cards and should be able to pull away and head into SEC play hot.
Prediction: Kentucky 87, Louisville 82
John Morgan Francis
Last Saturday’s showing in Chicago’s CBS Sports Classic seemed to be a turning point for Kentucky’s young season. Though many speculated that this year’s team would resemble the 2014-2015 “platoon” team, the departure of sophomore point guard Quade Green and inconsistent minutes from EJ Montgomery, Immanuel Quickley and Nick Richards have suddenly brought about a team reliant on their five starters.
Ashton Hagans, Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro bring a combination of sure-fire talent and hard-nosed effort that make opposing coaches cringe. PJ Washington and Reid Travis have consistently brought upon the same consequences, as their strong play inside the paint and veteran leadership has willed the Wildcats through 11 games.
While a slow start was tough to watch, Calipari’s team may begin to turn around at just the right time. On Saturday, the opportunity for Kentucky to continue their climb back into the top-10 will certainly present itself for the taking.
Prediction: Kentucky 74, Louisville 69
The Cats playing at Louisville may be the most unpredictable game remaining on the schedule. Not only has Kentucky’s play been up and down all season, but this will also be their first true road test, so it is impossible to predict just how this young team will react in the moment. The atmosphere in the KFC Yum! Center on Saturday afternoon will be about as intense as it gets in college basketball. Louisville fans have had their basketball batteries recharged now that Chris Mack is beginning to make his mark on the program. The Cards are no push-overs this season and have already proved that they are capable of competing at a high level right now.
This game has all of the ingredients to be a good ole fashioned rock fight that will test each team’s toughness. I would be willing to bet that you will not see a track meet game like that against North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic last week in Chicago. The typical formula for this game has been a pattern of the officials gaining control of the game early and blowing the whistle with regularity. Overall, I would think the scrappy style of play that produces a high number of fouls would favor the Cardinals, especially since that is sure to slow the pace of the game down. However, Kentucky is having one of their better free throw shooting seasons so far at 75%. The game could come down to who makes more from the foul line and maximizes on their limited number of possessions.
A clear advantage for Kentucky should be rebounding the ball. Both teams are grabbing about 38-39 rebounds per game, but UK is dominating their opponents by +12 on the glass each game. Louisville has rebounded the ball well so far this year, at +6, and they even went toe to toe with Tennessee back in November. But I just don’t see the Cards being able to keep up with the four bigs that UK can rotate in. If Kentucky can maintain their +12 average in rebounding margin they will win the game.
Chris Mack will be no different than Rick Pitino in the fact that he is going to muck this game up. Kentucky better come prepared to play tough for 40 minutes and win a low scoring game.
Prediction: Kentucky 63, Louisville 61
In my opinion, the UK/UL game is the biggest game of the season thus far for the Cats. Although the Cats got some much needed traction with their victory over North Carolina last Saturday, a victory over the Cards could give them the boost they need to go on a serious run.
The Cards are a solid ball club. They are very well coached by Chris Mack and will not beat themselves. Winners of four of their last five (their only loss a one point game to Indiana), the Cards could use a victory to stake their claim as relevant on the national scene going into ACC play.
The Cats have to feel pretty good about themselves after getting a win on the national stage and this is another opportunity for them to beat not only their arch rival but a solid team. I feel really good about the emergence of Ashton Hagans, especially on the defensive end, the level of Keldon Johnson’s play, and the duo of PJ Washington and Reid Travis around the paint.
I think the Cats have plenty of firepower to win the game. I look for the Cards to try to control tempo and limit UK’s paint touches. But if the Cats have another performance like they did in the Windy City and if Tyler Herro plays pretty well, the Cats win this game not easily but comfortably.
Prediction: Kentucky 78, Louisville 67
The Kentucky Wildcats are taking on the Louisville Cardinals Saturday afternoon in one of the best rivalries in all of college basketball. Up until last Saturday’s win over UNC, I’m not sure anyone would be shocked to see the Cards knock off the Cats in the KFC Yum! Center. However, I don’t think that’s the case anymore.
But for whatever reason, the Cardinals haven’t looked the same since they lost to Indiana. It could simply be a lack of energy, but they’ve played three relatively close games with Lipscomb, Kent State, and Robert Morris. Chris Mack’s squad might be slowing down after a hot start to the season.
Either way, UK has to come ready to play because UL can exploit one major weakness that the Cats’ defense has shown thus far. The Cards love the three ball and UK has been inept at slowing it down this season. The UNC game was excellent, but Kentucky has to play that way consistently.
Jordan Nwora is lethal on the offensive end. The 6-8 forward can light it up from all over the court and is a terrible match-up problem. He rebounds, too. I imagine PJ Washington or Keldon Johnson will be assigned Nwora depending on who the Cardinals start. It’ll be a tough assignment for either of them. But the one problem he has is turning the ball over. He’s very ball dominant and he turns it over by far the most on the team (2.5 tpg).
Dwayne Sutton is a high-motor guy, which helps elevate his level of play. However, he’s only 6-5 and he’s been basically starting at the four for UL. Steven Enoch is consistent down low and Christen Cunningham has been a steady hand at the point. The Cards do have a former McDonald’s All-American in VJ King coming off the bench, but he’s really underachieved at the college level.
Malik Williams and Khwan Fore are two role players to watch. Williams is a long, athletic defender that blocks shots at a high rate. He’s not great offensively, but he loves shooting the three. Best case scenario for UK is Williams making his first three-point attempt of the game, because he will jack them the rest of the time he’s on the floor. Fore is useless on the offensive end, but he’s one of the best on-ball defenders in all of college basketball. Imagine a 6-0 version of Ashton Hagans, except with more experience.
Ultimately, the game will come down to match-ups and whether UK can slow down the Cards’ three-point shooting while limiting turnovers. I think the Cats present UL with a multitude of match-up problems across the floor. If UL sends out their normal starting five of Cunningham, Fore, Nwora, Sutton, and Enoch, then UK should be able to dominate the inside. Chris Mack might need to change up the lineup for this one because UK’s size will cause problems. I expect huge games out of Reid Travis and PJ Washington.
If you asked me this time last week, I’d be picking the Cards. They’ve far exceeded my expectations to this point. But I believe last Saturday night’s success is sustainable and should be the expectation going forward. So, I’ve got to go with the Cats in a close one.
Prediction: Kentucky 73 Louisville 69
Kentucky’s performance against UNC on Saturday changed the face of this week’s match-up at Louisville. Earlier this season, the Wildcats have looked inept defensively and lacked an identity on offense. As of Saturday, it looks like both of those issues may have been solved.
Louisville is much better than advertised. I realize it may be the most backhanded compliment in sports, but they are a very scrappy squad. They also shoot the ball very well. That has been a recipe that plagued Kentucky throughout the year.
However, with Ashton Hagans setting the tone on defense and the offense now flowing through Keldon Johnson, the Wildcats really seem to be finding themselves.
All that said, this is a rivalry game and absolutely anything can happen. On paper, though, the Cats should be able to walk out of the KFC Yum! Center unscathed.
Prediction: Kentucky 70, Louisville 61
A week after the Cats put on their best performance of the season and took down UNC, they will now have to get prepared for a rivalry game on the road against the Louisville Cardinals.
Coming into the game, Kentucky is the more talented team but as we all know, anything can happen in a rivalry game. However, the Cards are a team that rely heavily on three pointers. So, the Cats will have to be locked in on defense and not give up a lot of open looks on the perimeter.
While I do think this is going to be a very close game, I still expect Kentucky to head back to Lexington with a win.
Prediction: Kentucky 78, Louisville 72