Battle in the Bluegrass: Previewing Kentucky vs. Louisville

Posted by Lathan Wells & David Changas on December 27th, 2014

Kentucky, the undisputed No. 1 team in the country, faces perhaps its last truly tough test of the regular season when it enters Louisville’s Yum! Center today with both teams unbeaten and carrying designs on a second national title in the last four years (a notion that sounds crazy in December, but probably true). John Calipari has won six of seven match-ups against the Cardinals since taking over in Lexington, but Rick Pitino is on the other sideline with home court as well as the best player on the floor wearing red and white. SEC micrositer David Changas and ACC micrositer Lathan Wells got together to break down the biggest game of the college basketball weekend, and quite possibly, the entire regular season.

DC: One of Kentucky’s biggest strengths this season is its ability to grab offensive rebounds. The Cardinals, on the other hand, have struggled on the defensive glass. What can they do to neutralize this Kentucky advantage and keep the Wildcats from getting too many easy putback baskets?

Montrezl Harrell living up to his pre-season accolades is imperative for the Cardinals to have a chance (AP Photo)

Montrezl Harrell living up to his preseason accolades is imperative for the Cardinals to have a chance today. (AP Photo)

LW: This may seem perfunctory, but Louisville needs to do an incredible job of blocking out. No one in college basketball can match Kentucky’s size, so the Cards will need all of their big men to keep their assigned Wildcats on their backs. Montrezl Harrell also has to stay out of foul trouble, and Chinanu Onuaku and Mangok Mathiang have to avoid the tendency to be overaggressive in a big-time situation so that they can stay on the floor as well. Another key against Kentucky is finding some rebounding help from the backcourt, so players such as Chris Jones and Terry Rozier will need to contribute in that department as well. Kentucky’s top-rated defense is so incredibly stifling that the Wildcats have coasted to most of their wins this year, but Louisville is bound to be hyped from the opening tip in this one. How would John Calipari’s team handle an early deficit, and who do you think is the one player the Wildcats absolutely need a phenomenal performance from to ensure they stay undefeated?

DC: It would be fascinating to see Louisville to jump out to an early double-digit lead just so we can see how Kentucky will react to adversity. Other than the odd halftime deficit against Buffalo and the “struggle” against Columbia, not much has been in doubt for this team. While this team certainly has the makeup to withstand an early run from Louisville, it is less clear that the Wildcats will react well. Given the limited minutes each player gets, there isn’t a particular guy who needs to have a great night like Harrell must have for Louisville, but Andrew Harrison needs to handle the ball pressure and keep his team calm if Kentucky is going to withstand any big runs. Keeping with the defensive theme, Louisville has also put up incredible numbers on the defensive end thus far this year, allowing its opponents to shoot only 34.3 percent from the field and 27.7 percent from three-point range. Given Kentucky’s relative inability – aside from freshmen Tyler Ulis and Devon Booker – to shoot the three-ball well (31.4% as a team), what must the Cardinals do to force the Wildcats to take more threes than they want to?

LW: The Cardinals should allow their guards to drop back inside the paint when Kentucky’s five doesn’t have a knockdown shooter among them. Jones and Rozier, while giving up a lot of size, must try to prevent dribble penetration from the Harrison twins, which will allow the bigs to focus on shutting down the alley-oop dunks that the Wildcats so effectively use. In other words, dare the Wildcats to shoot until it becomes a detriment. When some of the more accomplished Kentucky shooters are on the court, Louisville should play its normal in-your-face defense and take their chances in allowing the Cardinals’ big men to bang down low in one-on-one match-ups. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each of the two platoons will be very important strategically for Louisville in this game. We’ve seen Kentucky struggle to score in the half-court at times this year — if the Cardinals come out hot and Kentucky faces an early deficit, who will jumpstart the offense in order for the Wildcats to match their defensive effort?

DC: This is the one area that has to concern Calipari, as his offense is not one that has proved capable of scoring with ease in the halfcourt. It hasn’t had to much, though, because of the number of easy buckets that the Wildcats create in transition and from crashing the offensive glass. The offense appears to run much more smoothly when Ulis, a natural point guard, is on the court and it would make sense to envision a scenario where he sees more minutes if the offense is struggling. Now that we can finally touch on the offensive side of things, it’s well-known that Louisville likes to play fast (31st nationally in tempo). What can the Cardinals do to force the tempo so that they can get some easy baskets in transition and correspondingly avoid an excess of grind-it-out possessions against Kentucky’s incredible size?

Tyler Ulis may be the most important point guard on the floor for Kentucky Saturday (AP Photo)

Tyler Ulis may be the most important point guard on the floor for Kentucky today. (AP Photo)

LW: It really goes back to the initial question surrounding Louisville’s play on the defensive boards. The Cards can obviously get out quickly after made baskets, but if that’s the majority of their transition opportunities it will mean that they’re already behind. Rather, if Pitino can figure out a way to secure enough defensive rebounds to make the enormous Kentucky frontcourt chase them up and down the floor in transition, there’s a chance for some easy baskets here. But if they fall into the trap like so many others of allowing numerous second shots, the Cardinals will have a tough time both staying within reach and dictating tempo. By the way, this is Kentucky’s first true road game of the season, and it comes against its biggest rival. Obviously Kentucky has several holdovers who have already experienced this rivalry, but have you seen anything in past Kentucky-Louisville contests to suggest that the freshmen may be nervous or struggle in such an emotionally charged environment?

DC: This is Kentucky’s biggest rival and the most difficult test that the Wildcats have left on their schedule (thanks, SEC), but because of their overall experience, Kentucky’s players should not be fazed by what is certain to be an incredible atmosphere in Louisville. Ulis and Devon Booker, in particular, are the types of players who should thrive in this environment, but there is no question that we won’t know how any of the new players will react until they’re in the midst of it. Playing against high-quality competition at relatively sterile neutral sites is one thing, but playing on the road against a top-five team in arguably the best rivalry in college basketball is quite another. Nothing can prepare freshmen for that.

  • Louisville Wins If: Harrell plays like a legitimate Player of the Year candidate; the Cardinals get enough perimeter shooting from players other than Rozier to keep the defense honest; and Louisville keeps the Wildcats’ offensive rebounding numbers below 10 for the game. It wouldn’t hurt to turn the Wildcats over early and often with the press, either.
  • Kentucky wins if: It plays like we’ve seen it play so far this year. The Wildcats need to play the same stifling defense that has made discussion of an undefeated season plausible, and they need to knock down a handful of outside shots to open up the inside. If they do those two things, they will have too much for Louisville to handle for the seventh time in the last eight meetings.
Lathan Wells (77 Posts)

A 30-year old unabashed college basketball fan, I currently reside in Richmond, Virginia. I especially enjoy following the ACC and the local teams, VCU and the University of Richmond. I hope to continue my journalistic pursuits in the sports arena full-time in the future, but in the meantime I am really enjoying covering the greatest sport there is for RTC. Follow me on Twitter @prohibitivefav.

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