A battle between two top-15 ranked rivals is less than 24 hours away from tipping off inside Rupp Arena. But instead of John Calipari manning the ship and Ashton Hagans directing the offense, those roles will be filled by Mathew Mitchell and Rhyne Howard.
The No. 7 Louisville Cardinals (9-1) will face off against the No. 14 Kentucky Wildcats (10-0) on Sunday at 1 p.m. on ESPN. It will be the second of back-to-back games that the women’s team will play inside the famous downtown Lexington arena.
Mornin' Christmas shoppers, we've got a game tomorrow.
— Kentucky WBB (@KentuckyWBB) December 14, 2019
Kentucky comes into the game a perfect 10-0 on the season with eight of those wins coming at home. The story for the Wildcats over recent weeks has been the utter domination they’ve put on display against the early-season schedule. 40-point victories are happening more often than not; Opponents aren’t able to keep the game within 20 points after the first quarter.
However, that strength of schedule has been relatively easy. In reality, it’s been one of the weakest schedules any Divison I team has played this season. The actual statistics are almost laughable.
We’ve already discussed the lack of overall talent that Kentucky has played against over and over, but now the Wildcats are finally going to receive its first true challenge. Let’s get into what we know about the Cardinals and what they do best.
Head Coach: Jeff Walz
Star sophomore Rhyne Howard has gotten to know the head coach for Louisville quite well over the years, as she played under the 13-year collegiate coach when the two were winning gold medals over the past two summers.
Walz was the head coach for the U-18 Team USA squad in 2018 and the U-19 Team USA squad in 2019, both of which won golds with Howard as a key starter. Howard even won tournament MVP in the U-18 event.
In his 13 years with the Cards, Walz has posted an overall record of 340-101 and he’ll bring his ladies into Rupp coming off an 85-57 slashing of Nothern Kentucky. Walz is 6-6 in his career against Mitchell but has won the previous three matchups. This will be just the seventh time the two meet as ranked teams.
Louisville’s projected starting five will consist of:
G: Dana Evans (Jr.) – 19.1 ppg/2.5 rpg/3.1 apg
G: Elizabeth Balogun (So.) – 10.1 ppg/5.2 rpg/1.9 apg
G: Jazmine Jones (Sr.) – 13.6 ppg/4.8 rpg/3.5 apg
F: Bionca Dunham (Sr.) – 5.8 ppg/6.7 rpg/ 0.9 apg
F: Kylee Shook (Sr.) – 9.6 ppg/8.2 rpg/ 0.8 apg
Evans leads Louisville in scoring at nearly 19 points per game. Her season-high is a 28-point outing in a big win over Oklahoma State and it was the third time this year that she’s managed to top the 20-point mark. She leads the ACC in three-point makes with 30, a number that puts her 10th in the entire nation. Evans tries to chuck up anywhere from 5-6 triples per game and she’ll surely be looking to fire early in Rupp.
At just 5-foot-6, Evans is the smallest rotation player that coach Walz will roll with, but she’s easily the team’s top scorer from all areas of the court.
Next to her are two guards who tower over 6-feet tall. Balogun and Jones combine for nearly 24 points per game, with the former taking the role as the outside shooter and the latter as the inside scorer. Balogun has attempted 46 threes this season already, hitting 41.3 percent of those looks, and was named ACC Freshman of the Year in 2018-19. Jones is second only to Evans in free-throw attempts, making 22 of her 31 freebees, and she shoots just a hair under 58 percent from the field. She is on pace to set the program record for most games played as a Lady Cardinal.
In the paint, Louisville trots out two frontcourt players that will cause all sorts of problems on the glass for Kentucky. Dunham stands at 6-foot-2 while Shook is listed at 6-foot-4. Both are excellent rebounders, combing for almost 15 boards per game. Shook, in particular, will be unlike anybody the ‘Cats have faced this season. She leads the team with 17 blocks and is ranked second-all time in that category at Louisville. Her 82 rebounds are far-and-away the most on the team (Howard leads UK with just 56 total boards).
Shook has already posted four double-doubles this season, and her best outing of the year came against Oregon when she posted 18 points and 15 rebounds. The battle between her and either KeKe McKinney or Tatyana Wyatt down low will be a big indicator of who is going to win the rebounding battle (my guess is Wyatt will start out guarding Shook).
About the Cards
Evans is far-and-away the Cardinals’ best overall player. She was named the tournament MVP of the Paradise Jam back late November, averaging 21.3 points and 4.3 assists while shooting over 47 percent from the field and making 11 of her 21 shots from deep over the course of three games. UL won all three outings, the final coming against the then-No. 1 ranked Oregon Ducks, 72-62.
The Ducks were Pac-12 Preseason favorites coming into the season and managed to take down Team USA in an exhibition match in early November. Led by guard Sabrina Ionescu – a presumed No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming WNBA Draft – Oregon is still expected to fight for an NCAA Championship despite the loss to Louisville.
The Cards had already been a highly-ranked team before the surprising run in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but the win over Oregon shot them all the way up to No. 2 overall in the rankings. However, in the very next game not even a week later, UL lost to an unranked Ohio State team up in Columbus, 67-60.
Louisville also dismantled a good Oklahoma State team during the Paradise Jam tourney, pulling out a 69-48 win just a day before the matchup against Oregon. According to Her Hoop Stats, UL’s three games against Oregon, Ohio State, and Oklahoma State rate higher in quality than any win that Kentucky boasts.
By the same metric, Kentucky’s best quality win of the season is the slight 50-47 win in a road effort against 4-5 Virginia.
And like the ‘Cats, Louisville has been destroying the competition. The Cardinals points per game (77.3), margin per game (+19.4), and points per 100 possessions (107.4) all rank in the top-30 across all 351 Division I schools. Granted, Kentucky is blowing teams out by an average of 29.2 points per game (6th best in the country), but against objectively worse competition.
Louisville is a great shooting team from all areas of the floor. They post above-average shooting numbers in terms of field goal percentage, free-throw percentage, and three-point percentage. They spread out that scoring better than almost any team in the nation.
Key to the game: Offensive glass
Kentucky has typically been a solid offensive rebounding team over the years. Last season that was especially true, but it’s been the defensive rebounding that has provided a much-needed boost for the Wildcats thus far. UK has pulled in 73.5 percent of potential defensive rebounding opportunities, a top-40 mark in the nation. Going up against a Cardinal front line that corrals over 42 percent of its own misses – the 11th best percentage in the country – keeping the forwards at ease will be critical.
Overall, Louisville has been a fantastic rebounding team all season, on both ends of the floor. They have size in the starting lineup and even in the backcourt. Although Kentucky can counter with taller lineups of Howard and Blair Green playing at guard, it’ll be interesting to see if Jaida Roper and Amanda Paschal – both under 5-foot-7 – play at the same time at all.
This is without question the most difficult game that Kentucky has played this season. A win would justify the hype that has been surrounding this team and its many 40-point wins. It would also put into existence the idea that this Lady Wildcat team might actually have a shot to make a deep tournament run in March.
We’ll find out a lot about this Kentucky team at 1 p.m. tomorrow.