The No. 4 Louisville Cardinals will take on the defending-champion Kentucky Wildcats in one of the most anticipated matchups of the season on December 29—a matchup that clearly favors the 11-1 Cardinals.
Kentucky does have three losses this season, but each were to worthy opponents—Duke, Notre Dame and Baylor—and should not be taken lightly come tipoff. The Wildcats have some of the top talent in the country that could easily pull off an upset on the road.
Here are five things that the Cardinals need to do in order to avoid losing to their in-state rivals for the fifth consecutive time.
Limiting Second-Chance Opportunities
Louisville is not a great rebounding team. The Cardinals are tied for 149th in the country in defensive rebounds per game with 24.2 (via ESPN).
That doesn’t necessarily imply that Louisville is allowing plenty of offensive rebounds, because that wouldn’t be true. In fact, the Cardinals have only allowed an average of nine offensive rebounds through their first 12 games of the season.
The Wildcats average 11.8 offensive boards per game and will be looking to capitalize on every second-chance opportunity they’re handed.
Alex Poythress, Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein all have hauled in at least 20 offensive rebounds this season which could lead to big problems for Louisville. Even if it means committing a foul here or there, the Cardinals have to limit these chances because they could end up being the difference maker.
The Wildcats have been good at not turning the ball over very often this season. Through their first 11 games of the year, they average 12.27 per game which is the 60th-best in the country (via ESPN).
Outside of Archie Goodwin and Poythress, no Kentucky player averages more than two turnovers per game.
But taking into consideration that Louisville averages the second-most steals per game behind Virginia Commonwealth (via ESPN), the Wildcats might find themselves under a bit more pressure than they’re used to seeing.
Kentucky fields a very young team—nine underclassmen—and playing against one of the top teams in the nation on the road will not be easy. With the pressure that Louisville is expected to bring against the Wildcats, turnovers could be an area that makes this game a blowout instead of a nail-biter.
Boxing Nerlens Noel Out
Nerlens Noel is a rare find. He’s very athletic and is proficient in nearly every aspect of the game. Making sure he doesn’t have a big game is a major factor in whether Louisville wins or gets upset at home.
Noel nearly averages a double-double this year—scoring 10.7 points and grabbing 9.1 rebounds per game. If Louisville allows Noel to score 10 points, that’s fine, but they cannot allow him to haul in more than nine rebounds.
If Louisville loses to Kentucky, it will most likely be because the Wildcats out-rebounded the Cardinals.
Two players that will have the task of boxing Noel out will be Gorgui Dieng—if he’s able to play—and Chane Behanan. They’re two of the biggest forwards on Louisville's roster and will frequently be matching up with Noel on the low post.
Making Free Throws
The Wildcats don’t have as much depth as the Cardinals do, so getting them into foul trouble should be something that Louisville looks to do. But that’s only half of the battle.
If Louisville is shooting from the charity stripe, the Cardinals have to shoot a high percentage—a factor that has plagued them this season. Louisville is shooting 69.8 percent from the free-throw line this year, which is ranked 141st (via ESPN).
If Russ Smith or Peyton Siva is not on the line, Louisville is in trouble since Kevin Ware is the only other Cardinal shooting better than 70 percent.
Kentucky is going to be giving away free points to Louisville, but if the Cardinals only make 70 percent of their attempts from the line, the Wildcats may be able steal this one on the road.
Creating Shots for Russ Smith
Smith is the difference maker for the Cardinals in this one and their winning depends on him performing at a high level. He’s the team’s leading scorer this season, averaging 19.7 points per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field and 33.8 percent from downtown.
As one of the top scorers in the nation, the other Louisville players on the floor need to make sure Smith is getting good looks at the hoop. He’s very good at playing off of screens, and pick-and-rolls are something to look for the Cardinals to do against the Wildcats.
ESPN’s Seth Greenberg writes that Smith is an opposition’s worst nightmare:
Smith might be the best one-on-one player in college basketball. A high-volume shooter who changes speed and direction, Smith can get a shot off any time he wants. Cardinals coach Rick Pitino allows him to probe the defense and gives him the green light to attack the basket and create plays on his own.
If Louisville is going to defeat Kentucky, it will mostly be because of Smith.