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.