Following a loss to Missouri, where the Kentucky Wildcats were never in the game, the tension and frustration within the Big Blue Nation is at the highest it has been in the John Calipari era. Fortunately, the Wildcats have a chance to relieve some of that pressure with a rivalry game against the Louisville Cardinals on Saturday.
Even with their struggles, Kentucky’s problems do not compare to those of Louisville. Sitting at 2-11, the Cardinals are not favored to win another game this season. In addition, they rank 343rd of 365 in the NET rankings, a ranking system that compiles a team's body of work for the NCAA Tournament.
With that said, Kentucky is expected to win their first game against Louisville since 2019 (lost in 2020, cancelled in 2021), and in a BIG way. Let’s take a closer look at the matchup and look at three things to look for.
Improving the Offense
Twelve games into the season - effectively a third - and the Wildcats have no offensive identity or any set rotations. Considering this is a team that many though had the talent of a Final Four contender, this is concerning.
This is a team with a very similar roster makeup to last season. Of course, Oscar Tshiebwe and Sahvir Wheeler returned, but this team has CJ Fredrick and Antonio Reeves in place of Kellan Grady and Davion Mintz for shooting, and Cason Wallace in place of TyTy Washington as the star freshman. So why is this team performing so poorly?
The biggest difference? The production at the four spot. When comparing Keion Brooks last season and Jacob Toppin this season, Brooks was much more consistent. Through thirteen games, Brooks averaged 10.5 points on 48.3 percent shooting, compared to just 10.5 points and 40 percent shooting. To make matters worse, Toppin has not scored more than five points in nearly a month (12/4, Michigan).
There are other offensive problems, such as poor execution and poor spacing that needs to be corrected, but finding consistent production at the four spot, aiding Oscar Tshiebwe and Cason Wallace, would make it much easier to solve the rest of the issues.
On paper, this is Kentucky’s easiest game on the schedule. While a convincing victory feels like a must over Louisville, this is an opportunity for Kentucky to find that other contributor.(Hint: Chris Livingston is the best option.)
Convert at the Free-Throw Line
The three point shooting is indicative of a team that can shoot, but their free-throw shooting shows a team, that as John Calipari has said, is not mentally tough. This has cost the Wildcats the game against Michigan State, and further deepened their hole in other games this season as well (i.e. UCLA).
Louisville may not have the most efficient defense, but they do a good job of not fouling. With that said, Kentucky will need to capitalize on the opportunities they are given at the charity stripe.
While Saturday’s game shouldn’t come down to free throws, the players need to see some go through the net, and ultimately build their confidence to knock down the free throws when it matters most.
Take a look at social media or ask a fellow Kentucky fan, there is plenty of frustration. With a fanbase that desperately wants to cheer on their Wildcats in a big moment, disappointment seems to be a too often result as of late.
To add to that, the Kentucky football team is playing at the same exact time in the Music City Bowl against Iowa down in Nashville.
That begs the question, what will the attendance be?
Given the circumstances and the fact that Louisville is very bad, I still expect Rupp Arena to be at or close to full capacity given that this is the first Kentucky-Louisville game in Lexington in three years. However, the fans could make a statement, and it would not be surprising to see the online fan presence in favor of the bowl game.
Time/Date: 12:00 pm ET on Saturday, December 31st, 2022.
Location: Rupp Arena in Lexington, KY
TV Channel: CBS
Radio: Tom Leach and Jack Givens have the UK radio network call on the UK Sports Radio Network.
Replay: CBS Sports Network (check local listings).
Odds: Kentucky is a 23.5-point favorite via DraftKings Sportsbook. Despite a bad performance against Missouri, ESPN’s matchup predictor gives the Wildcats an 98.4% chance of winning, while Bart Torvik gives Missouri a 98% advantage, which is where KenPom also has it.