Kentucky Basketball: 8 Predictions for Their Final Four Matchup
After rampaging through their first four games as easily as befits a No. 1 overall seed, the Kentucky Wildcats finally have a challenge facing them in the Final Four. No. 4 seed Louisville is the hottest team left in the field and winner of eight consecutive games, including the Big East tournament title.
The two longstanding rivals will be meeting for the second time in 2011-12, with Kentucky having won the first round by a 69-62 score. Will that New Year’s Eve clash repeat itself in March, or will the Cardinals’ momentum carry them all the way to the national championship game?
Read on for a look at what to expect from Saturday night’s rematch, complete with a prediction for which team will move on to play for the national title.
8. 65 Points Will Be Enough to Win
For the second time in three games, Louisville (ranked third in the nation with a .380 field goal percentage allowed) faces one of the only defenses in the country that can match its own.
Kentucky stands atop the field-goal defense list, holding opponents to .375 shooting.
Unlike Michigan State in the Sweet 16, Kentucky has no particular interest in slowing the tempo against Louisville, so the 57 points the Cardinals scored in that game are unlikely to earn them a victory against the Wildcats.
Instead, don’t be surprised to see this game fall very much in the same range as the 67 points that gave Kentucky the win in December.
7. Louisville’s Comeback Mojo Isn’t Done Yet
One of Louisville’s greatest strengths all season has been its propensity for turning opponents' turnovers into its own scoring runs.
An 18-3 run to close the game saved the Cardinals against Florida in the Elite Eight. Even against Kentucky, they managed to make up a 15-point deficit, albeit more gradually.
Kentucky has a very talented offense, but even they aren’t going to be able to avoid some scoring droughts against the scorching-hot Louisville defense.
There’s an excellent chance that Wildcat fans will again have to watch a double-digit lead slip away before the final buzzer sounds on Saturday night.
6. The Final Score Will Be Even Closer Than December’s Seven-Point Margin
Merely having faced a given opponent in non-conference play doesn’t mean that they will be the same team by the time a March Madness rematch rolls around.
Just as Kentucky nearly beat UConn in last year’s Final Four after being demolished by the Huskies the previous December, the Wildcats can’t take anything for granted after a seven-point victory on New Year’s Eve over these Cardinals.
Considering the 15- and 20-point beatdowns Kentucky was handing most visitors to Rupp Arena this season, the Cards’ relatively narrow defeat suggests that they’ll be a particularly dangerous foe on a neutral court in New Orleans.
Louisville is also playing better now than they have all season, and while Kentucky can probably say the same, they’re not nearly as far ahead of where they were in December.
5. Anthony Davis Will Struggle Offensively
At 6’10”, Anthony Davis hasn’t gotten many opportunities to pick on someone his own size this season. The star freshman will have his chance on Saturday as he battles another outstanding shot-blocker, 6’11” Louisville sophomore Gorgui Dieng.
Dieng, a native of Senegal, is blocking 3.2 shots a game on the season, not on Davis’ level but still good for eighth in the nation.
Davis is still a work in progress at the offensive end—witness the nine points he scored on 2-for-5 shooting in beating Indiana in the Sweet 16—and he’s unlikely to put up big scoring numbers against such a skilled shot-blocker.
4. Louisville Will Shoot Too Many Three-Pointers for Its Own Good
Kentucky fans know as well as anyone how much Rick Pitino loves the three-point shot. Unfortunately for him, this year’s edition of his Louisville team just isn’t equipped to win with that particular approach.
The Cardinals shoot a dismal .318 from long range as a team, and only Chris Smith (.398 on 166 attempts) is a legitimate threat to win games from beyond the arc.
Add in the enormous size advantage Kentucky enjoys on the wings—every perimeter starter for the Cardinals gives up at least two inches to his UK counterpart—and Louisville will be in real danger of shooting themselves out of the game.
3. Dribble Penetration Will Be Vital for Kentucky
The Cardinals' matchup zone has bedeviled every opponent they've faced in the Big Dance, and standing around the perimeter flinging up jump shots (even with Kentucky's dangerous guards) would be a recipe for disaster.
Pounding the ball into the big men isn’t a great option either, both because the zone can easily collapse on the low post and because shot-blocker Gorgui Dieng is better for a defender than either Anthony Davis or Terrence Jones is for a post scorer.
With those two options not looking promising, Kentucky will be forced to attack off the dribble in order to draw double-teams, then kick out to the open shooter.
Spot-up shooting is a strength for this team, so it should be a workable approach, provided that Marquis Teague and the rest of the guards can make crisp passes to get the ball to a shooter before the defense recovers (or forces a turnover).
2. Darius Miller Will Step Up
One of Louisville’s most valuable weapons this season has been sixth man Russ Smith, a 6’0” guard averaging 11.6 points (second-best on the roster) and 2.2 steals a night.
However, Kentucky boasts one of the few reserves in the country who can negate the off-the-bench advantage Smith provides for Louisville: Wildcat senior Darius Miller.
The 6’8” Miller will tower over his Louisville counterpart while still being quick enough that Smith won’t be able to blow by him, should they find themselves matched up against each other.
Miller is a far superior shooter to the erratic Smith, and if Miller’s outstanding defense can coax some ill-advised shots out of the Louisville sophomore, Kentucky’s job will become that much easier.
1. The Wildcats Will Move on to the Championship Game
With two spectacular defenses going at it, the Wildcats are in for their stiffest test of the tournament so far.
The decisive factor, though, will be Kentucky’s superiority on the offensive end.
The Wildcats shoot .487 from the floor, 10th-best in the nation. Louisville, by contrast, ranks 225th in the country (.425), and even the hottest defense in college hoops isn’t going to be enough to make up for that kind of disparity.