***** – quit your job and divorce your wife if that’s what it takes to watch this game live
**** – best watched live, but if you must, tivo and watch it tonight as soon as you get home
*** – set your tivo but make sure you watch it later
** – set your tivo but we’ll forgive you if it stays in the queue until 2013
* – don’t waste bandwidth (yours or the tivo’s) of any kind on this game
Brian Otskey is an RTC contributor.
A really good schedule awaits college basketball fans today on your New Year’s Eve. The Battle of the Bluegrass gets things going right away with an early noon tip, a game tailor made for Gus Johnson. All rankings from RTC and all times eastern.
#12 Kentucky @ Louisville — 12 pm on CBS (*****)
Louisville will be shorthanded in this game but is favored according to the Vegas odds. The Cardinals, still without Jared Swopshire, will also be missing the services of Rakeem Buckles and Mike Marra this afternoon. Still, this is a game you must watch with Gus Johnson on the call. It is a unique rivalry that doesn’t get enough press and has only heated up with the addition of John Calipari and the switch of Rick Pitino from Kentucky blue to Louisville red. It started almost 100 years ago in 1913 but the teams have only met 41 times prior to today with Kentucky holding a 27-14 edge. These teams did not meet for 24 years from 1959 until an elite eight NCAA Tournament game on March 26, 1983. They have met every year since then with UK leading 18-11 in the modern era. One interesting fact is that Kentucky has never failed to win at least two games in a row after winning one throughout the entire history of this series. With the Wildcats on a one game winning streak entering the game today, that statistic, though ultimately meaningless, would suggest a UK win. Expect this game to feature a lot of threes, a big part of each team’s offense. Kentucky actually has five guys who can knock down a triple, much more than the average team. Doron Lamb and Preston Knowles are the big shooters for their respective teams with Lamb being the better of the two so far this year. The freshman has connected on 54% of his treys including a seven for eight performance against Winthrop, a large part of Kentucky’s #13 three point percentage. Knowles is Louisville’s leading scorer and a good defender who teams with Peyton Siva to really disrupt opponents on the defensive end. That will be a big factor against Kentucky point guard Brandon Knight, averaging almost four turnovers per game. Rick Pitino loves the zone press so expect a lot of trapping and aggressive on-ball defense from the Cardinals, trying to get Knight out of a rhythm and make him turnover-prone. As a whole, Kentucky takes remarkably good care of the ball with only 11 turnovers as a team. Calipari needs a good point guard to run his dribble drive offense and Knight is often the key to their success. He had an awful game in a loss to Connecticut and fouled out after committing six turnovers in UK’s loss to North Carolina. In the front court, Kentucky has the best player on the floor in Terrence Jones. The 6’8 freshman can score from almost anywhere on the floor and uses his superior athleticism effectively to create space. Another T.J., Terrence Jennings, has to have a good game defensively for Louisville. He’s a good shot blocker and must neutralize Jones inside. Despite their reliance on the three pointer, the Cardinals get a lot of points inside as well, the seventh best two point shooting team in the country. With Buckles out however, Louisville may turn even more towards the trey in order to win. Kentucky lacks a true scoring center as Josh Harrellson rebounds well but doesn’t look to score much, attempting just four field goals per game. Expect Kyle Kuric to step up in the absence of Marra and Buckles. He’s played more minutes lately and scored 25 points against Morgan State on Monday. Quite simply, this game is going to be a war. The fans hate each other, the coaches do too and even the players got into it right away last year. Most rivalry games are close and despite Louisville’s personnel issues, we expect this one to be as well. However, depth could rear its ugly head if the Cardinals get into foul trouble. Louisville fouls a lot and Pitino has to ensure that doesn’t become an issue. Even though they’re on the road, Kentucky is the better team and has to get the edge here. Take the Wildcats and the points today.
#13 Minnesota @ #18 Michigan State – 4 pm on Big Ten Network (****)
A critical game for both teams, the loser will face some tough questions going forward. With a loss today, Minnesota faces the real possibility of starting Big Ten play at 1-3 with a game at Ohio State next Sunday and Indiana in between. Michigan State would drop to 8-5 overall with a loss today, making Monday’s game at Northwestern a huge one for the Spartans. For Tom Izzo’s team, the three point line is critical in this matchup. Minnesota doesn’t defend it well at all (#260) and the Spartans shoot 40% behind a trio of capable long range bombers. Durrell Summers leads Michigan State in scoring and is arguably their best shooter from deep while Kalin Lucas and Korie Lucious can also knock down the trifecta. Tubby Smith likes to play a zone but that may hurt the Gophers in this matchup. Unless Minnesota extends their defense beyond the line, Michigan State can easily shoot right over it. Of course when you extend a zone there will be holes inside. Minnesota’s big men must lay down the law in the paint and force MSU to beat them from the outside. A strong defensive game will really limit the Spartans offensively and turn this into a rebounding battle, one Minnesota should feel confident in their ability to win. Michigan State has not been a vintage Izzo team in terms of defense and rebounding, a bad sign against a tall and talented Minnesota team. Trevor Mbakwe could be deadly against the Spartans today with his quickness and long arms around the tin. With Mbakwe inside and Blake Hoffarber outside, the Gophers will keep Michigan State on their toes all game long. Al Nolen must play better for Minnesota. Wisconsin shut him down on Tuesday night held the Minnesota offense in check en route to a victory. Turnovers will again be the story for the Spartans, averaging 16 per game. Extra possessions only enhance the Gophers chances. Michigan State looked awful against Syracuse and the Gopher bigs are even taller than Syracuse’s. Despite the KenPom prediction and the Vegas odds, we’re going against the grain and feel this game will come right down to the very end. This is anyone’s ballgame in East Lansing this afternoon.