Battle of the Bluegrass: Previewing Kentucky vs. Louisville

Posted by C.D. Bradley & Brian Joyce on March 28th, 2014

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The most intense rivalry in college basketball renews Friday night in Indianapolis when Louisville and Kentucky square off in the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years. C.D. Bradley, who writes about the American for RTC, and Brian Joyce, who covers the SEC, preview the showdown and what it means to the basketball-mad bluegrass state.

C.D. Bradley: A lot of people will tell you that Duke and North Carolina is the top rivalry in college basketball, but it’s impossible to convey the ever-present antipathy between red and blue. A big part of it is the usual once-a-year nature of the rivalry, but this will be the sixth time Louisville and Kentucky have met in the NCAA Tournament. For Louisville, which had snatched the advantage over the past year, winning a national title and ending this season in the top five of the national rankings while the Wildcats struggled, the possibility of having their potential repeat title run ended by their neighbors to the east is a doubly unpleasant notion. What does this game mean for UK fans?

Rick Pitino clashes with in-state rival Kentucky and its coach, John Calipari yet again (AP).

Rick Pitino clashes with in-state rival Kentucky and its coach, John Calipari yet again (AP).

Brian Joyce: One might assume that Kentucky fans would be relieved to make a Sweet Sixteen appearance after losing to South Carolina and Arkansas a month ago, but a person with that theory must not know Kentucky fans very well. A win over Wichita State has the Big Blue Nation in a frenzy over the potential of their Wildcats if things come together like they did on Sunday afternoon in Saint Louis. It may even be possible that Kentucky fans are slightly overlooking Louisville. Julius Randle played all of four minutes in the second half of the Wildcats’ victory in December after dominating with 17 points during the first 20 minutes. The Cards struggled with Randle and Kentucky’s length, and while Louisville is a much different team at this point in the season the challenge of stopping the Cats’ imposing front line remains. Since John Calipari arrived in Lexington he has beaten his rival in five of the last six meetings, and Kentucky fans expect that trend to continue.

BJ: With that said, I think the key to this game will be points in the paint. The Cats have a clear advantage down low, which led them to outscore Louisville 42-24 in Lexington. Neither Dakari Johnson nor Willie Cauley-Stein were factors in the first game, but look for Kentucky to establish them on the low block along with Randle. None of this will matter however, if Kentucky’s defenders do not get back in transition. The Cats have struggled all year on transition defense, and of course Louisville will look to capitalize by making this an uptempo game. But outside of Xs and Os, Kentucky played its best game of the year against Wichita State, in part because it played with a level of intensity that was not present at any other point this year. The young Wildcats need to play with the same sense of urgency in every game forward if they want to continue to advance. C.D., what do you think are the keys to the game?

C.D.: The Cardinals certainly need to hold their own inside, but they can win the game on the perimeter. They rank in the top five nationally in steal percentage, while the Wildcats rank a thoroughly mediocre #167 in turnover percentage on offense. That’s the easiest way for Louisville to push the pace and get those transition buckets. They will also need to score from distance; Louisville hit 37 percent of their three-point shot this year, but only 6-of-26 when these two teams met in Rupp. If they shoot their season percentage, or the even higher 39.6 percent that they shot in conference play, they will be very tough to beat. Most of all though, they need Russ Smith to play like the First-Team All American and KenPom Player of the Year rather than the guy who shot 7-of-20 against the Wildcats in December and and 6-of-19 in his first two  NCAA Tournament games. If he instead drops 13 dimes, like he did when Louisville beat UConn by 33 in the regular season finale, or the 42 points he scored in the AAC semifinal, he can carry his team to victory.

But as he has been most of the season, the X-factor will be Luke Hancock. Rick Pitino calls him the quickest guy with the ball on the team. While that might be so much Pitino puffery, particularly for a guy whose foot speed is best described as glacial, Hancock’s cleverness allows him to play quick without hurrying. He has to lead the world in fouls drawn on pump fakes, his inside-out two-man game with Montrezl Harrell allows both to thrive on the weak side, and when he’s hitting from deep, the runs mount up quick (just ask Michigan). The match-up at the three will be vital; James Young destroyed a hobbled Hancock in December, but if Hancock matches or exceeds Young’s numbers Friday night, Louisville wins. Brian, who’s the X-factor for the Wildcats?

Brian: For Kentucky, the X-factor has to be point guard  Andrew Harrison. He has been a different player in postseason play, stepping up his play with 12.0 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game in the SEC and NCAA Tournaments. He grew up right in front of our eyes last weekend, steadying the ‘Cats with 20 points and three assists against Wichita State. John Calipari’s infamous tweak worked, as Harrison and the Kentucky offense converted 1.26 points per possession, the most efficient output from Kentucky since February 4. Even more important than his offensive contributions, though, is that Harrison will be key in containing Louisville’s Smith. Smith has the ability to go off, as you described, and Harrison is not exactly known for his lock-down defense. Kentucky will need Harrison to use his length to disrupt Smith’s shot and keep him from getting hot from the perimeter. Calipari teams are defined by the play of their point guard, and the Wildcats need a complete game from Andrew to survive and advance.

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