The No. 8 Kentucky Wildcats (4-1) are off to a strong start in defense of their national title. They are set to face off with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (6-1), who are also enjoying an early surge despite the fact they have already lost more games than the football team.
Not everybody agrees with the tactics of Kentucky head coach John Calipari, but it's impossible to deny his recent success. After winning the title last season, he was forced to revamp the entire roster once again, and the Wildcats are right back in the Top 10.
The Irish are off to a promising start after entering the season with pretty low expectations. Thursday night's game, which is a part of the SEC-Big East Challenge, will be their first true test. It will give fans a better idea of what to expect.
Here's a look at all the important information for the marquee matchup, followed by some players to watch and a prediction.
Where: Joyce Center in South Bend, Ind.
When: Thursday, Nov. 29 at 7 p.m. ET
Watch: ESPN2 and ESPN3.com
Listen: WKHG 104.9 FM (Kentucky) or WSBT 960 AM (Notre Dame)
Betting Line: TBA
Key Injuries (via USA Today)
Kentucky: Ryan Harrow (questionable, flu/personal issue)
Notre Dame: No injuries listed
What's At Stake?
The Wildcats began the season with back-to-back tough games. They knocked off an upstart Maryland squad before suffering their only loss to Duke. Since then, Kentucky has faced three overmatched opponents, which are the games where chemistry is built.
Now, fans get a chance to see the progress the Wildcats have been making. Anytime a team undergoes a complete overhaul and brings in a fresh set of talented recruits, it takes time to get the pieces to fit together. Kentucky has already made some noticeable progress.
On the flip side, Notre Dame is looking for an upset victory that will push the Irish into the rankings. Victories over St. Francis and Chicago State aren't going to do that. Beating Kentucky would make a statement that their strong start isn't a fluke.
What They're Saying
Kentucky guard Ryan Harrow issued a statement about his recent absence from the team after returning to practice earlier in the week, based on a report from the Lexington Herald-Leader.
"Unfortunately, when I started feeling better, I had an issue to tend to with my family over the holiday break. Everything is good with that now and I'm excited about playing with my brothers again."
Pete Sampson of IrishIllustrated.com passed along some thoughts from Irish head coach Mike Brey, who hopes the team's recent form remains intact for the Kentucky game.
"I hope that carries over to Thursday," said head coach Mike Brey. "I thought our offensive rhythm was good tonight. That's something we're gonna need not only Thursday, but down the road. Loved how we shared the ball, moved it around."
Kentucky Player to Watch: Archie Goodwin
Goodwin does it all for the Wildcats. He's averaging 19 points, which leads the team, five rebounds, four assists and a block. He's also shooting 53 percent from the floor and can even step beyond the arc to knock down a three if the defense backs off.
Last season's title team didn't even have a player that illustrated that type of versatility. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was the closest, but he wasn't as good of a distributor. Goodwin can contribute in any area, and that makes him invaluable to the Wildcats.
He also leads the team in minutes, showing Calipari already has a lot of faith in him. His ability to strike the right balance between finding shots for himself, while also setting up his teammates to succeed, is one of the season's biggest keys for Kentucky.
Notre Dame Player to Watch: Garrick Sherman
At first glance, Sherman's numbers aren't all that impressive. He's averaging just 11 points and five rebounds per game. But when you consider he's doing it while playing only 19 minutes, it becomes a much more impressive stat line.
The Irish have a pretty crowded rotation, which explains Sherman's limited minutes so far. If he continues to play at such a high level, however, Brey will have no choice but to give him more chances to contribute moving forward.
Sherman previously played for Michigan State and failed to make an impact over two seasons. Notre Dame is giving him a chance, and he's proving to be quite the find. It will be interesting to see how he plays against a talented Kentucky front line.
Key Matchup: Nerlens Noel vs. Jack Cooley
The comparisons to Anthony Davis are going to be with Noel all season. It's taking him some time to adapt to the college level, but he's done a solid job on the defensive end. Just like Davis, his ability to block and alter shots is a huge advantage for the Wildcats.
He played 38 minutes against Duke. That shows Calipari wants him to get a lot of action against elite competition early in the season to help his development. By the time the tournament rolls around, he should be completely prepared.
Getting to go up against a senior like Cooley will help that process. Cooley has improved during each of his four seasons with the Irish and is up to 14 points and 11 rebounds per game. His experience will help him against Noel, but the Wildcats should roll.
Kentucky 77, Notre Dame 68
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