Previewing the Battle of the BluegrassPosted by Ross Schulz on December 28th, 2013
The 2013 version of the Battle of the Bluegrass between Louisville and Kentucky will be a passionate, hard-fought affair. What makes this season’s game a bit different is that both teams fancy themselves as national title contenders even though neither squad has produced a win worth justifying that talk. That will change Saturday for one of the two teams, making this game even more important from a resume perspective than it already is. The Wildcats opened the season as the No. 1 team in the country and have proceeded to lose all three of its games against ranked opponents (Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina), although Big Blue does have two decent home wins against Boise State and Belmont.
Louisville has similarly lost to the only ranked team it has faced (North Carolina) and has feasted on an otherwise weak schedule to build an 11-1 record. To the Cardinals’ credit, feasted may be an understatement as the Cardinals sit first in the nation in scoring margin at 26.2 points per game. The second place team, Utah, is a full 2.7 points behind. When it comes to seed implications for the NCAA Tournament, the importance of this game cannot be understated. Neither Kentucky nor Louisville plays in an elite basketball conference, so opportunities for high-quality wins against strong competition will be scarce. The loser of today’s game will have little margin for error when it comes to their marquee conference games such as the two Florida games (for Kentucky) and Memphis and Connecticut (for Louisville). And make no mistake about it, earning a top seed matters come March. Both Pitino and Calipari, winners of the last two national championships as No. 1 overall seeds, know that and strive for it. So let’s look at what each team has to do to walk away with a win at 4:00 PM ET on CBS.
What will it take for the Wildcats to win?
With Willie Cauley-Stein, Julius Randle and Alex Poythress in tow, the Kentucky frontcourt has the potential to dominate the smaller and weaker Louisville front line. Kentucky will need to dominate the glass, particularly on the the offensive end, to create more possessions to come out on top. The Wildcats also needs to hit a reasonable number of outside shots. If the Wildcats make six or more threes — something they’ve done in about half of their games but only once in a loss — they’ll beat Louisville today. Kentucky wins with its powerful inside game, but perimeter players like the Harrison twins and James Young will need to knock down a few jumpers to keep the Cardinals’ defense from packing it in. And finally, the Rupp Arena crowd needs to have a reason to stay loud and proud throughout the game, meaning Kentucky needs to get off to a hot start to really put the pressure on the much more experienced visitors. The veteran Cardinals shouldn’t be rattled, but a quick start to invigorate the crowd is the best recipe for success for the team in blue.
What will it take for the Cardinals to win?
A poised effort from the starting guards is essential for a Louisville victory. Russ Smith needs to keep things under control and Chris Jones and Terry Rozier can’t be rattled by the hostile atmosphere by trying to do too much. The guards are the strength of the Cardinals and so far this season they have outplayed their Kentucky counterparts. That has to continue this afternoon if Louisville hopes to win its second straight against its bitter rival. It will be the last chance for Smith to play in Rupp Arena, or “Russ Arena,” as it was dubbed by Cardinal fans after Smith led his team through the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament last season, and also scored 30 in a loss to the eventual national champions two years ago. Secondly, the Louisville front line has to hold their own against the much taller and stronger Kentucky group. They don’t have to be dominate, outrebound or even outscore the Wildcats’ bigs, but they’ve got to keep it close and not let Cauley-Stein and Randle run roughshod over them. The Kentucky frontcourt is its strength, so if Louisville can limit its success with swarming double-teams and forcing turnovers, the Cards will celebrate again in Lexington.