The Kentucky Wildcats started out the season worse than anyone could have anticipated. But with the postgame outbursts and reported ego problems in the locker room, did they finally hit rock bottom after last Saturday’s against North Carolina?
John Calipari has had a week to prepare his team for what is normally the biggest game on Kentucky’s schedule. But all things considered, the in-state rivalry is not in the top-10 storylines for this game.
For Louisville, their season has been riddled with injury and COVID-19 issues. They missed nearly two weeks of play due to COVID-19 regulations, and then came back playing with only nine scholarship players. Their low point of the season was their first game back from those two weeks off when they suffered a 85-48 loss against the Wisconsin Badgers.
At this point, almost everyone is back for the Cardinals. In Louisville’s 64-54 win over Pitt on Tuesday, Carlik Jones returned to play after missing the Wisconsin game, and sophomore Josh Nickelberry saw his first action of the season. Senior big man Malik Williams continues to sit due to a foot injury.
Now that Jones is back in action, Louisville’s back court is going to be tough for Kentucky to handle. Jones leads the Cardinals in scoring with 16 points per game, and sophomore guard David Johnson is having a breakout season with 13 per game. Both guards are aggressive, smart, and play very well together.
One issue that I am sure will miraculously change between now and Saturday is Louisville’s shooting. As a team, they shoot just 32% from behind the three-point line. Aside from Jones, who is 7/14 from deep, nobody with more than 10 attempts has hit more than 34% of their attempts. Since three-point defense has been a big weakness for Kentucky, that may be somewhat remedied by Louisville’s lack of shooting ability.
Sophomore big man Samuell Williamson has also had a good start to the year, leading the team with seven rebounds per game to go with his 11 points. However, at only 6-7, he may have issues matching up against Kentucky’s length inside. In fact, Kentucky should have a major size advantage at every position.
Louisville does not have a single player over 6-8 that plays more than 10 minutes per game, making it imperative that Kentucky takes advantage of their size and wins the battle on the boards. Olivier Sarr (7-0), Isaiah Jackson (6-10), Lance Ware (6-9), and Jacob Toppin (6-9) should have a field day on the glass. Whether or not they will take advantage of that opportunity remains to be seen.
Kentucky has had a myriad of their own issues. Cam’Ron Fletcher has been sent home to assess his priorities. The Wildcats have only shot 24% from behind the three-point line. They average nearly 17 turnovers per game to only 11.5 assists. And the eye test makes it look like none of the players are on the same page.
In order to win on Saturday, BJ Boston will have to find a way to score and add to his team-leading 14.5 points per game average. Sarr and Jackson will need to stay out of foul trouble. And someone in blue needs to hit a few outside shots (hello, Dontaie Allen).
With both teams reeling so far this season, it is tough to get excited for this matchup. Perhaps those feelings will change for many when the teams take the court. They certainly need to change for everyone wearing a Kentucky jersey in the YUM! Center. Seeing those guys excited and having fun would be a nice change of pace.
To add to this mess of a game, both Doug Shows and “TV Teddy” Valentine will reportedly be blowing whistles and making a scene for a national audience. So any chance we had of an up-and-down, fast-paced game will inevitably be crushed by the need for these officials to remain in the spotlight.
The game tips off at 1 pm on Saturday. Make plans to prepare your game day food and be obnoxious to anyone wearing red accordingly.
Kentucky Wildcats (1-5) vs. Louisville Cardinals (5-1)
Location: KFC YUM! Center — Louisville, Kentucky
Date: Saturday December 26th
Start Time: 1:00 pm EST
TV Channel: ESPN
Radio: Tom Leach and Mike Pratt will have the UK radio network call on 630 AM, 98.1 FM in Lexington, and on the UK Sports Network.
Replay: WatchESPN and the SEC Network (check local listings).
Odds: Louisville opened as a 4.5-point favorite. ESPN’s matchup predictor gives Louisville a 63.2% chance at victory. KenPom gives the Cards a 64% chance of winning.
Prediction: KenPom projects a 69-65 win for Louisville.