Dec 27, 2013, 12:00 PM EDT
Two months ago, the Battle of the Bluegrass that will take place on Saturday afternoon was the single-most highly-anticipated game of the college basketball season.
Two of the nation’s top three teams — the last two national champions — squaring off in a game that just-so-happens to be the most intense rivalry in the sport these days? It’s should come as no surprise, then, that the entire state of Kentucky and every college hoops media member circled this date on their calendar the second that we knew what the date was.
But thanks to some early season struggles, No. 6 Louisville’s visit to No. 18 Kentucky isn’t even the best game on Saturday afternoon. That title goes to the battle of the undefeateds between No. 2 Syracuse and No. 8 Villanova.
That doesn’t mean that we won’t be looking forward to that 4:00 p.m. tipoff on Saturday.
Quite the opposite, actually.
In fact, what makes the game so intriguing is the unknown. This is not an exaggeration: There is nothing that could happen in this game that would surprise me, save for Willie Cauley-Stein hitting 10 threes or Chane Behanan hitting all his free throws.
Louisville is one of the best teams in the country. They are currently sitting at No. 1 in KenPom’s rankings, posting the nation’s most efficient offense while slotting in fifth in defensive efficiency. They do what every Rick Pitino team has done: press, force turnovers, rely on the playmaking ability of their back court. The Cardinals are legit, and it would shock no one if they went into Rupp and beat the Wildcats.
But part of the reason for that is that Kentucky has not been themselves thus far this season. Or maybe they have and we just expected too much. John Calipari has a group that has now lost to the three marquee opponents they have played by a total of 13 points. All three of those losses came on the road or on a neutral court. In all three games, there was one part of Kentucky’s performance that cost them the win.
In other words, the talent on this roster is evident. Getting that talent to play together has been a tougher task that Cal expected.
Is this the game that they finally breakthrough?
Because at the end of the day, neither Kentucky nor Louisville has an elite victory this season. The Cards lost to North Carolina in fairly ugly fashion, getting worked over at Mohegan Sun back in November. Both teams really need this win, not just to right their ship and get their season headed in the right direction. And it’s not just to earn bragging rights in the Commonwealth for the next 12 months.
It’s to ease the fears of a slow start. Doubts are creeping in on both sides of the rivalry, and a loss on Saturday will only escalate those doubts.
So who gets the win?
Well, there are two keys to this game the way I see it.
First and foremost, the Harrison twins are going to have to be able to handle Louisville’s pressure. They cannot turn the ball over and give the Cardinals easy run outs. Kentucky’s biggest knock is on the defensive end of the floor, and they last thing they need to do is allow the Cards to get run out after run out after run out. Protect the ball, maximize possessions offensively and eliminate those easy buckets. Sounds easy, right?
The other key to the game will be the battle of the front courts. Julius Randle is as good as anyone in the country at drawing fouls and getting opposing bigs into foul trouble. Louisville has some bigs that can hold their own against Randle in the post, but those kids — Montrezl Harrell, Chane Behanan, Mangok Mathiang, Stephen Van Treese — have a bad habit of getting into foul trouble.
Kentucky-Louisville has lost some of its luster from the preseason, but this is still must-see TV.
Apr 20, 2015, 10:45 PM EDT
BYU is losing two reserve players to transfer.
Apr 20, 2015, 9:45 PM EDT
Iowa landed a junior college forward to close out a six-man class.
Apr 20, 2015, 8:45 PM EDT
Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg is up and on his feet after heart surgery.
Apr 20, 2015, 7:45 PM EDT
North Carolina star point guard Marcus Paige had successful surgery
Apr 20, 2015, 6:45 PM EDT
Shannon Evans is leaving Buffalo. Is athletic director Danny White the reason why?
Apr 20, 2015, 5:45 PM EDT
Rhode Island added some immediate help shooting the ball.
Apr 20, 2015, 4:45 PM EDT
Ohio landed an in-state Class of 2016 center.
Apr 20, 2015, 4:30 PM EDT
South Florida continues to hit the transfer market hard.
Apr 20, 2015, 3:17 PM EDT
Evan Payne averaged 18.0 points for LMU last season.
Apr 20, 2015, 2:47 PM EDT
Tarrant will step into the starting point guard role for Memphis.
Apr 20, 2015, 2:38 PM EDT
Wiltjer will likely be a preseason all-american.
Apr 20, 2015, 1:58 PM EDT
The younger Greek Freak is hitting the AAU circuit this summer.
Apr 20, 2015, 12:52 PM EDT
This is the leader in the clubhouse for the weirdest offseason story.
Apr 20, 2015, 11:49 AM EDT
Sampson gives LSU one of the best recruiting classes in the country.
Apr 20, 2015, 9:37 AM EDT
Poeltl had a chance to be a first round pick.
Apr 20, 2015, 9:05 AM EDT
Who’s going pro? Who’s returning to school? Who are we still waiting to hear from?
Apr 19, 2015, 11:15 PM EDT
Brandon Ingram’s down to six schools: North Carolina, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, UCLA and NC State.
Apr 19, 2015, 10:05 PM EDT
Marcus Keene averaged 15.6 ppg last season, and with Chris Fowler entering his senior season this is a good pickup for the Chippewas.
Apr 19, 2015, 9:20 PM EDT
Brandon Sampson will pick LSU, Oklahoma State or St. John’s on Monday, and he’s an important recruit for the Red Storm.
Apr 19, 2015, 8:42 PM EDT
Nathan Davis, who won 78.3 percent of his games as head coach at Randolph Macon, was an assistant at Bucknell from 2003-08.
- Kyle Wiltjer to return to Gonzaga for his senior season 0
- Utah’s Jakob Poeltl will return to school for his sophomore season 1
- 2015 College Basketball Updated Early Entry List 14
- Former Kansas State guard transferring to Creighton 0
- Former Cornell forward Shonn Miller headed to UConn for final season of eligibility 0
- Purdue center A.J. Hammons to return for senior season 0
- Five-star 7-footer Stephen Zimmerman commits to UNLV 4
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- Duke’s Tyus Jones becomes third Blue Devil to enter the NBA Draft (11)
- Five-star Kentucky commit believes the NCAA will clear him to play (10)
- Updated 2015-2016 College Basketball Way-Too Early Preseason Top 25 (9)
- Duke freshman Justise Winslow will enter 2015 NBA Draft (8)