The Ultimate Breakdown: Kentucky vs. LouisvillePosted by zhayes9 on March 27th, 2012
Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.
The hysteria leading up to Saturday’s Louisville-Kentucky national semifinal will be unprecedented.
The mutual loathing between legends John Calipari and Rick Pitino is only matched by the contempt between the two fan bases. Such a passionate and deep-seeded rivalry playing out on the grandest of stages is tantalizing to even the most casual observer. But once the smoke clears and the ball is tipped, those juicy storylines all become secondary, fading into the background with the hype and frenzy. Suddenly all that’s relevant is Peyton Siva’s speed, Kyle Kuric’s smooth jumper, Anthony Davis’ shot-blocking and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in the open floor.
For the lowdown on what to expect from the biggest basketball game in the history of the commonwealth, here’s a full-fledged Dr. Jack-style breakdown covering every aspect of Saturday’s opener:
Backcourt- It’s no accident that Peyton Siva’s remarkable late-season turnaround has coincided with Louisville’s spurt from a seventh place finish in the Big East to the Final Four in New Orleans. Russ Smith is an irrepressible, confident ball stopper just as prone to a mindless turnover as he to is scoring 10 points in the blink of an eye. Siva and Smith provide the engine to Louisville’s attack, while athletic two-guard Chris Smith and long-range marksman Kyle Kuric are Pitino’s steady cogs. Kentucky’s Achilles heel was long considered freshman point Marquis Teague, but he’s significantly cut down on his turnovers and can pack an unexpected scoring punch. Doron Lamb is a superior gunner to Kuric, shooting a fantastic 47% over his career from three. Look for Calipari to plug versatile swingman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on Siva to stifle the Cardinals’ offense. Kidd-Gilchrist is a standout defender and the best collegiate player in transition since Derrick Rose. Edge: Kentucky.
Frontcourt- The progression of Louisville center Gorgui Dieng from a raw, bungling, and clumsy big man to a premier post defender and competent scoring threat in just two seasons has been nothing short of incredible. The popular crutch that freshmen are sophomores by the time March rolls around is often untrue, but it applies in the case of Chane Behanan, a gifted offensive rebounder who will be asked to contain Terrence Jones. When Jones is engaged, active and filling up the stat sheet, Kentucky is unstoppable. Anthony Davis has had an OK year: number one high school recruit, starting center for top-ranked Kentucky, national freshman of the year, likely national player of the year, and future top overall pick in the NBA Draft. Only North Carolina can come close to matching Kentucky’s weaponry down low. Edge: Kentucky.
Bench- Neither team extends very deep into their bench, yet both boast a de facto starter in Russ Smith and Darius Miller. At just 38% from two and 31% from three, Smith isn’t exactly the pillar of efficiency, but for a team that didn’t finish in the top 100 in offensive efficiency and scored less than 60 points in five of their final six conference games, Pitino will gladly accept the good with the bad (per Luke Winn, Pitino likes to say Smith “makes coffee nervous”). Any coach in America would love to have Darius Miller on their team, a steady wing defender equally adept at attacking off the dribble or firing from deep. Louisville steady defender Jared Swopshire and Kentucky pick-and-pop threat Kyle Wiltjer also see limited time off the pine. Slight Edge: Louisville.
Outside Shooting- For a coach who popularized the three-point shot as the great equalizer in the college game, this Pitino-led squad isn’t particularly proficient in that area. Louisville shot a meager 31.7% from three this season with Chris Smith pacing the field at 40%. Kuric is a more gifted shooter than his 33% season-long mark would indicate. Doron Lamb received a nice practice session for Kuric chasing Baylor’s Brady Heslip around screens last Sunday. Kentucky is near the basement of Division I in percentage of shots from three. The Wildcats bread is buttered with Kidd-Gilchrist’s penetration, Miller’s mid-range artistry and big-to-big action between Davis and Jones. The one notable exception is Lamb, one of the best pure shooters in the country. Slight Edge: Louisville.
Rebounding- Kentucky is by no means a rebounding juggernaut – Ohio State is actually the Final Four’s leader in rebound margin after both North Carolina and Michigan State fell in the regionals – but they outpace their opposition on the boards by over seven a game, an advantage good for tenth in the nation. Davis, Jones and Kidd-Gilchrist are all above-average rebounders and primarily responsible for the Cats snagging 37.9% of their misses on the season. Louisville counters with a mediocre +1.6 rebound margin and defensive rebounding has been a yearlong issue. Dieng and Behanan will need to put forth a yeoman’s effort against Kentucky’s massive frontline. Edge: Kentucky
Defense- The most underrated facet of John Calipari’s staggering success is the fact that none of his teams have posted a defensive efficiency outside the top 15 since 2005. This year’s Wildcats are no exception due to their interior mastery, holding opponents to just 40% from two-point range and leading the country in block percentage. Despite Davis’ dominance and Kentucky’s suffocating man-to-man, Louisville is actually first in the nation in defensive efficiency. The Cards defend both the arc and the paint, while their ability to seamlessly switch from a 2-3 matchup zone to man-to-man is the reason Louisville marched back against Florida. Slight Edge: Louisville.
Alpha Dog- What makes both of these teams special is their success without a true go-to guy. Unlike Ohio State with Sullinger or Kansas with Robinson, Louisville and Kentucky can count on a different player to wear the Superman cape every game. Calipari loves to tout that he has six players who averaged 25+ points per game in high school and they’ve all finished as the leading scorer in a game this season. If it comes down to a one-possession affair, look for Calipari to call Kidd-Gilchrist’s name, while Pitino may opt with Russ Smith’s ability to create a look off the dribble. Slight Edge: Kentucky.
Wild Card- Due to his ability to keep both teams in the game, Russ Smith is the ultimate wild card. After posting around 16 points per game and only turning the ball over eight times in the Cards last three outings, he’s proven more of an asset than a liability. Terrence Jones was an enigma wrapped in a riddle for most of his sophomore season, but he’s been strangely consistent for a large chunk of SEC play and into the NCAA Tournament. Jones only scored one point yet was arguably the MVP of the first half against Baylor, controlling the boards, engineering fast breaks and delivering message-sending dunks. I’ll say it again: when Jones plays up to his potential, Kentucky is just about unbeatable. Slight Edge: Kentucky.
Coaching- The fact that John Calipari and Rick Pitino have taken three different schools to a Final Four speaks for itself. Pitino is as wise and sharp as ever, maneuvering a Louisville squad oft-injured and offensively challenged to New Orleans. Calipari has once again molded a medley of future lottery picks and a new point guard into a seemingly unstoppable force. This may be the most talented and well-rounded team he’ll ever coach. Edge: Neither.
Pressure- Pitino wasn’t fibbing when he said they’d have to build “fences up on bridges” if Kentucky lost to Louisville. For such a rabid fan base, a defeat on Saturday to their bitter rival and perceived little brother would rival Christian Laettner’s game-winner as the all-time heartbreaker in Lexington. With their ideal blend of talent and unselfishness, Kentucky is expected to win the national title. Anything less is deemed a failure. Now that’s pressure. Huge Edge: Louisville.
Crowd- Both will be well represented at the Superdome, but nobody travels quite like Big Blue Nation. Edge: Kentucky.
Final Verdict- In Kentucky’s last loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament, the Commodores played zone, packed the lane and forced Kentucky to beat them with jump shots. Louisville’s zone is much more aggressive with Siva and Smith pressuring opposing guards into ill-advised decisions or turnovers leading to run-outs. Getting into a high-speed chase by pressing Kentucky is also reckless. Once the Wildcats solve Pitino’s zone and Davis reminds Smith who owns the lane, there will be little doubt. Edge: Kentucky.