The battle for the Bluegrass state has made its way onto college basketball’s biggest stage, as Louisville and Kentucky will face off Saturday night in New Orleans with a national championship game berth on the line.
This is college basketball’s most heated rivalry—sorry Duke-Carolina—and the angst between these two fan bases will only be magnified as the Cardinals and the Wildcats meet in what figures to be a Final Four matchup for the ages.
This rivalry is bigger than basketball, big enough that this fan thought it necessary to offer his wife in exchange for tickets to Saturday night’s game and these fans believed it proper to engage in fisticuffs at a Georgetown, Ky., dialysis clinic.
One of the main storylines heading into this national semifinal matchup is the Pitino-Calipari dynamic—the better coach vs. the better recruiter; the man who led UK to a national championship more than a decade ago vs. the man who has accumulated so much talent but continually failed when it matters most.
For better or for worse, the coaches are grabbing all the headlines as we approach Saturday’s showdown, relegating the players—you know, the guys who will actually determine the outcome of the game—to secondary status.
With that in mind, I think it's necessary that we ignore the coaches, the history and the fan hostility, and delve deeper into the matchups on the floor.
Siva is Louisville’s most important player, its playmaker on offense and the catalyst for its recent Uconn-esque Big East tournament run.
But the junior struggled for much of the year, most notably during a seven-game stretch at the beginning of conference play in which he averaged just over six points per game.
Siva improved throughout conference play, cutting down turnovers and improving his shot selection. His point totals have declined since his impressive 7-for-12, 17-point performance against Davidson in the second round, but he’s made up for his shortcomings on offense by playing lockdown perimeter defense.
The wily, 6'0" Washington native has also been a key component in Pitino’s signature full court press. Siva will need to be at his best Saturday night, as he’ll be up against one of the most talented and most improved players in the country in Marquis Teague.
Like Siva, Teague struggled early in the season. He was forcing shots, committing turnovers and seemed unfit to run Calipari’s high-paced offense. Teague was thought to be the Wildcats’ main weakness heading into the NCAA tournament.
The freshman has silenced those critics throughout tournament play, leading the Wildcats to four double-digit wins, while averaging just under 15 points per game.
Due in part to Teague’s improvements, UK now has the nation’s second-most efficient offense, per kenpom.com.
Teague’s recent improvement has transformed him from the Wildcats’ Achilles heel to one of their main playmakers on offense, but Siva’s quickness and savvy play will be too much for the freshman to handle.
Unlike many of his teammates, Lamb eschewed the NBA draft after a disappointing Final Four loss to eventual national champion UConn in last year’s tourney.
In order for the Wildcats to avoid another untimely slip-up in the national semifinal, the sophomore will need to continue his spot-on three-point shooting.
Lamb has averaged just under 17 points throughout tournament play. Expect the Cardinals to use a matchup zone defense to slow down the Wildcats' coterie of explosive perimeter slashers, which will allow Lamb to get open looks—particularly from beyond the three-point line.
If the sophomore can hit three-point shots, the Cardinals may be forced to go man-to-man, at which point Kentucky will be able to exploit their obvious athletic and size advantages.
Smith is athletic enough to guard Lamb, but we may see Pitino opt to use Russ Smith (no relation) in order to provide more of a scoring punch.
Either way, the Smiths are more than capable defensively, but when you play against Kentucky, scoring becomes paramount.
Russ recorded a season-high 30 points when these two squads faced off on New Year’s Eve and he’s coming off an impressive 19-point performance against Florida in the Elite Eight.
Affectionately known as Russ-diculous, Smith led the Cardinals’ miraculous comeback effort against the Gators, so expect him—despite his often erratic and unpredictable decision-making—to get significant playing time in this matchup.
While Smith’s heroic efforts against Florida were impressive, Lamb is a better, more-consistent scorer.
Kidd-Gilchrist is the Wildcats’ vocal leader and the reason that the Wildcats’ conglomerate of freshman blue chips was just one Christian Watford buzzer-beater away from an undefeated regular season.
At 6'7" and with more athleticism than anyone else on Kentucky’s roster, MKG is—to state it bluntly—a beast.
Not only can he put the clamps on any team’s best offensive player, but the way he mercilessly attacks the rim, it would best serve you to just stay out of the way.
To make matters worse for the Cardinals—who were MKG’d on New Year’s Eve when the freshman forward recorded 24 points and 19 rebounds—Kidd-Gilchrist has elevated his play since the tournament started, scoring a combined 43 points in his two previous games.
Louisville has no one that can match Kidd-Gilchrist’s size, speed and explosiveness, on defense, nor will they be able to keep the future NBA lottery pick from going beast mode on the offensive glass.
Kuric has been a Cards’ fan favorite all season, but he’s been mediocre at best throughout their tournament run, going a combined 3-13 from three in the last two games.
The senior won’t get many open looks against the Wildcats’ suffocating defense, but when he does, he will need to convert—especially from beyond the three-point line.
The senior is experienced enough to flourish on this big stage, but he better hope that he avoids isolation situations against Kidd-Gilchrist.
One of the main reasons Louisville was able to erase an 11-point, second-half lead against Florida was Behanan, whose 17 points and dauntless defensive efforts were key in the Cardinals’ 25-10, second-half run.
Midway through the second half of that Elite Eight matchup, Pitino switched from zone to man-to-man defense. The Gators began running high-ball screens, forcing Cardinals’ center Gorgui Dieng to leave the paint.
But Pitino adjusted again, this time switching Behanan out on the perimeter. The freshman shut down the Gators’ screen-and-roll offense.
Behanan’s valiant efforts against Florida were commendable, but the Wildcats’ attack is not nearly as one-dimensional.
Whereas the Gators live and die by the three-point shot, Kentucky won’t simply falter if one aspect of their offense is ineffective.
One of the Wildcats’ multitude of weapons on offense is Jones, recently awoken from his early-season slumber and out to prove his critics that he is still a first-round talent. Jones is the Wildcats’ most skilled frontcourt player, and he will be a tough matchup for Behanan.
Jones’ tendency to relax on defense should be a concern for the Wildcats, but against Behanan—who, despite all of his improvements, is yet to develop a refined post-game—it probably won’t matter too much.
Is there anything that Anthony Davis can’t do?
The Wildcats’ super frosh has been the nation’s best player all season—and it isn’t even close. Once criticized as a one-dimensional, “all-he-does-is-dunk” player, Davis has turned into a shot-blocking machine on defense and has developed a multifaceted offensive repertoire.
Davis is the Wildcats’ eraser on defense, allowing his teammates to take chances out on the perimeter. He protects the rim, yes, but no shot is safe from the 6'10" freshman. Armed with a 7'4" wingspan, Davis’ realm of shot-blockability extends to the three-point arc.
Oh, he’s pretty good offensively, too. Matched up with Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller and Quincy Acy—three future NBA draft picks—in the Wildcats’ Elite Eight victory over Baylor, Davis poured in a tournament-high 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting.
To his credit, Dieng has been brilliant throughout tournament play. The 6'11", Senegalese center blocked seven shots in the Cardinals’ upset win over Michigan St. in the Sweet 16, and he’s continued to improve offensively.
Dieng will need to protect the paint against the Wildcats’ explosive scoring threats, and that job will be made more difficult by the fact that Davis is an alley-oop waiting to happen.
Louisville’s big man has a bright future, especially if his offensive skills can eventually match his prowess on the defensive end.
But Davis is a unique talent—a future star at the next level. The Brow will prevail.