The anticipation is mounting, but the days are dragging on. We’re so close, yet so far from the final, fateful day in March. The Battle of the Bluegrass takes to its hardwood form once again in a rare same-season rematch. The biggest prize is only a game away for the victor, but the direst of consequences waits for the defeated. Excitement, in its most heightened form is the only way to describe the emotion of most basketball fans in this state.
So let’s break it down; take a step back, see what went right, what went wrong. Rick Pitino has his team playing its best basketball of the season, but Kentucky has managed to win each of its four NCAA tournament games by double-digits. Both teams are on a high, and looking for some serious bragging rights for the off-season, regardless of the outcome in the title game.
It is key that no additional pressure is placed on the team, but the stakes are astronomically high for the fans. It’s business as usual and the pressure is still on the Cats, the same as it’s always been. Louisville will try to dethrone the Kings, as most every team has attempted to do, and failed, this season. The target is clear: Number Eight.
— The leading scorers
Back in December it was a career day for both leading scorers, for Kentucky it was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist leading the offensive attack, dropping 24 points, a season-high he matched against the Hoosiers in the Sweet Sixteen. Collecting 19 boards gave him one of the better games he’s had all season. Russ Smith for the Cardinals carried the team with a season-high 30 points coming off the bench.
Jump forward now: with Kidd-Gilchrist having two of the best games in a month against Indiana and Baylor, and Smith finding his hot hand again the last few games in the tournament as well, both players could very well find themselves leading the charge again.
But Terrence Jones is playing some of the best basketball of his young career, and though he wasn’t a significant contributor in the points column against Baylor, it was the most unselfish he has probably ever played. That good mojo has to rub off somewhere. At the same time, Gourgi Dieng is the Cardinals lifeblood inside. He is a poor man’s Anthony Davis (and I don’t necessarily say that in a bad way) because he can dominate the paint, score from range, and block shots like nobody’s business. The Cards could very well take a page out of the Indiana playbook and just try to out-muscle Kentucky’s big men.
— The X-Factor
Defense, more importantly the defense Kentucky has to face, is the X-Factor for the Cats. Deciding what Pitino employs hinges largely on Kentucky’s shooting from outside. Kentucky is far from a team which relies on the three-point shot to win ball games, but you can certainly force a team’s hand when you make shots from outside. Not to mention it will neutralize the Louisville X-Factor.
The zone discussion will surely pop up again, but Kentucky has done such a good job handling it recently (see Baylor) it’s possible Rick Pitino will use it only sparingly. If that’s not the case and Pitino sticks with a 2-3, look for the zone-buster Darius Miller to step up with the mid-range floaters, or lofting the back-door lobs to Davis.
For Louisville it’s their full-court press. Not many teams have run the press with huge success against Kentucky, simply because of their incredible speed. But then again, not many run the press as well as a Rick Pitino team. In the regular season match in Rupp Arena, the Cardinals forced 20 turnovers on Kentucky — only one off from their season high against Old Dominion. They’ve averaged only 11 per game.
Louisville will have to force a ton of turnovers and limit the number of possessions Kentucky has. Neither teams will want to play catch up in this one, so if the Cards can create easy take-away buckets scoring in transition, their confidence will be through the roof.
— The dark horse MVP
Both Kentucky and Louisville will be looking for big games from their point guards, considering the abysmal games each had in the first meeting. Kentucky’s Marquis Teague has turned it on to a whole new level, becoming a seriously elite-level point guard. That’s something a little different from Calipari’s typical approach, but the chemistry he brings on the court is unrivaled. For a team full of youngsters, Teague’s maturity growth through the season has been visible. This is Marquis Teague’s team. You could have argued that at times Lamb was better running point in the first half of the season. But those arguments are long gone.
Peyton Siva is quite the two-headed monster. He makes some absolutely incredible plays that just leave you shaking your head, wondering how he pulled it off. But Siva makes so many dumb decisions almost every other time. Whether it’s driving the lane to nowhere or committing silly touch fouls near half court, Siva has made a habit of taking himself out of ballgames. That cannot happen if the Cardinals want a shot at winning this game. That’s not to say other point guards like Teague don’t make mistakes either, but Siva lacks a lot of finesse skill that other points guards like Teague have that can make up for deficiencies. Siva needs a career day to lead the Cards to victory.
In the regular season game Teague scored four points on 1-of-8 shooting, and he fouled out — the only time he’s done that this season. Siva scored eight points on 2-of-13 shooting in the regular season game, while committing four fouls.
— The skinny on Kentucky
Good: Kentucky got to the line 43 times in the first meeting. With the way things have gone the last two games (37 attempts against Indiana, 44 attempts against Baylor) it seems likely a lot of points will be scored at the charity stripe in this one as well.
Bad: Kentucky was favored by 10-points in December, held a lead as large as 15, and only won by seven. (OK, that’s a stretch, I know)
— The skinny on Louisville
Rick Pitino realized Russ Smith’s potential. He was their offense in the first match, outscoring all five starters combined. Kentucky really had no answer for his drives to the rim, even with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist guarding him.
On the same token, Louisville’s entire starting lineup in the last meeting only scored 26 total points. It was literally the Russ Smith show for the Cardinals, and you can’t win a ball game, much less beat Kentucky, with one player. Right, Iowa State?
The Cats have knocked down four foes, and have two to go. If the same team comes out this weekend that we saw against Indiana or Baylor, the game could get ugly in a hurry.
The Cats are hungry, and it’s feeding time on Saturday. 8pril is coming.