It’s been waiting on the UK basketball schedule, the letters throbbing, fairly glowing: LOUISVILLE, DEC. 29. And now it’s almost here.
The UK-U of L game is always huge and the last one was the biggest one of all: Winner would play for the NCAA championship, and we all know how that one turned out. The only way it would have been any grander is if it were the actual championship game itself. (That could have happened in 1975, but the Cardinals blew a late lead and lost in the semifinals to UCLA, which went on to beat Kentucky in John Wooden’s final game as the Bruins’ head coach.)
Neither coach in this one will be confused for the Wizard of Westwood, but you know their similarities and their back stories. What their respective resumes include right now is four head-to-head matchups in the past three seasons, with John Calipari winning every one of them.
The Cardinals are favored by as many as 14 points to snap Rick Pitino’s losing skid to his rival, but of course, they were favored two years ago when Josh Harrellson picked the Yum! Center as the site for his coming-out party. Harrellson, largely ignored by the Cards on defense, went for 23 points and 14 rebounds and helped lead the Wildcats to a 78-63 upset.
It would be a surprise, albeit a pleasant one in these here parts, if the Cats steal another victory on Saturday (it would be a disaster in the River City). And it could happen. Here’s how:
TAKE CARE OF THE BASKETBALL
U of L has turned the ball over 154 times in 12 games, an average of 12.8 per game. UK, just 135 in 11 contests (12.2). But the Cardinals, who have the depth to play the pressing, trapping style of defense Pitino’s best teams have favored, already have forced 257 turnovers. That means Louisville’s opponents are averaging 21.4 turns against the Cards.
Kentucky has to make good decisions under pressure, not just in the backcourt, but once the ball crosses midcourt, where the half-court stripe becomes an extra defender.
A key matchup in this department will be Ryan Harrow vs. Peyton Siva. Harrow has played in just seven games, starting only three. His numbers have climbed steadily and his most impressive stat by far is turnovers: He has committed just five, while averaging 21 minutes per game.
Siva is a crafty veteran who will challenge Harrow in a way the redshirt sophomore has never been challenged. He’ll need help from Kentucky’s own crafty veteran, Julius Mays, who’s averaging just one turnover per game.
Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress at times have had trouble taking care of the basketball. If they’re pressed into service bringing it up the floor, they have to value the ball.
HIT OPEN SHOTS
With Louisville overplaying at times on defense, an extra pass will yield some wide open looks. The Wildcats have to take advantage. Kyle Wiltjer broke out of his shooting slump against Lipscomb, hitting seven three-pointers. Prior to that, he was five for his previous 30 from behind the arc. Mays needs to find his range as well. He was 1-for-7 against the Thundering Herd and has missed 13 of his last 15 shots.
As a team, the Wildcats are hitting 49 percent from the floor; this, despite the fact that Goodwin (who leads UK in shots taken) makes just 46 percent. Wiltjer is next in shots taken, and he’s at 44 percent. But Poythress (65 percent) and Nerlens Noel (53 percent) raise the overall average, with a majority of their attempts coming from the paint. Kentucky needs to take advantage of their size on Saturday. Speaking of which…
REBOUND, AND REBOUND SOME MORE
UK outrebounded U of L 36-25 during the upset win two years ago (Terrence Jones supplemented Harrellson’s effort with eight). In fact, 13 of those Blue boards came on the offensive end. Kentucky outscored Louisville 18-9 in second-chance points that afternoon.
` The Cats have out-rebounded their opponents this season 38.8 to 34.5; the Cards have the exact same average and surrender just 32.3 per contest. Winning the battle of the boards is a must for the Wildcats. In order to do that, they have to…
PLAY PHYSICAL BASKETBALL
Kentucky is talented, but has not yet been accused of bullying anyone. The Cardinals likely will bang the Cats all over the floor. UK has to be able to answer in kind, without committing silly fouls. U of L has the edge in the depth department; Pitino has nine players who average in the double digits in minutes played.
DON’T LET SMITH HAVE A RUSSDICULOUS GAME
The recent subject of a Sports Illustrated feature, Louisville guard Russ Smith finally is playing with the maturity Pitino has coveted since the sophomore set foot on campus. All it took was Smith being ignored by NBA scouts, who weren’t interested in the sometimes clownish guard.
Remember, it was Smith who came off the bench against Florida in the NCAA West Regional championship game last year, pouring in 19 points and leading the Cardinals to the Final Four. This, from a guy who was known primarily for his defense. As a freshman last year, Smith set a new team record for steals in a single season and was ranked 19th nationally in take-aways. He averages nearly three per game this season.
Whoever is assigned to guard Smith will have his hands full. If it’s Goodwin, that could affect the UK guard’s game at the other end of the floor.
REMEMBER TO PLAY YOUR OWN GAME
Kentucky can not let Louisville dictate, whether it be tempo or style of play. The Cats say they like to get out and run, but they can’t be seduced into playing a pace they’re incapable of sustaining. Through the years, that’s the way Pitino’s pressing teams have destroyed other ballclubs.
Pitino once told me every point guard thinks he’s good enough to play the running game, even if his team plays a half-court style. One of the big reasons the Unforgettables were able to come back against Duke in the 1992 NCAA tournament was the fact that Bobby Hurley committed eight turnovers against UK’s pressure. He wanted to get out and run, but his teammates couldn’t keep up.
The Wildcats will have a game plan going in. They need to stick to it, and it’s up to Harrow to make that happen.
WITHSTAND THE EARLY ONSLAUGHT
The Cards will be pumped. The Yum! Center will be rocking. Louisville likely will go on an early run and the noise will be deafening. But remember this: U of L raced out to a six-point lead in the first six minutes of the game in 2009. The Wildcats scored 15 of the next 17, took an 11-point margin to the locker room and won by 15.
Will it happen again? Tough to say. This U of L team is better than that one. That UK team had more experience than this one in veterans Harrellson, Darius Miller and DeAndre’ Liggins.
But if the Wildcats embrace the checklist of do’s and don’ts, they could be all smiles Saturday night.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th year with the UK TV and radio network, and can be heard each Monday-Friday hosting the “Big Blue Insider” from 6-8 p.m. on 630 WLAP-AM, wlap.com and I Heart Radio.)