It'll be a Final Four rematch in Louisville this Saturday, when the Kentucky Wildcats travel to take on the Louisville Cardinals.
What was pitted in the preseason as a matchup between top-five teams has lost some cache in the season's first month. Over a six-game, 18-day stretch, the defending champion Wildcats (8-3) lost thrice—to Duke, Notre Dame and Baylor. They only lost twice in 40 games last season.
The Cardinals, on the other hand, have lived up to their top-five ranking so far this season. The lone blemish on Louisville's resume came against Duke, who currently sits undefeated atop the college basketball rankings.
Like many things since John Calipari came to Lexington, this annual in-state rivalry has gone Kentucky's way the past few years. Counting last year's Final Four game, which Kentucky won 69-61, the Wildcats have bested Louisville four consecutive times.
Let's see if Rick Pitino and Co. have what it takes to break that trend:
When: Saturday, Dec. 29th at 4:00 p.m. ET
Where: KFC Yum! Center, Louisville, Ky.
Live Stream: CBSSports.com
Kentucky Wildcats Injury Report (via USA Today, as of 12/27/12)
|G Jon Hood||Illness||Doubtful|
Louisville Cardinals Injury Report (via USA Today, as of 12/27/12)
|C Gorgui Dieng||Wrist||Probable|
|F Angel Nunez||Concussion||Out Indefinitely|
|G Mike Marra||Knee||Out for Season|
|Kentucky Wildcats||Louisville Cardinals|
|G Ryan Harrow||G Peyton Siva|
|G Julius Mays||G Russ Smith|
|G Archie Goodwin||G/F Wayne Blackshear|
|F Alex Poythress||F Chase Behanan|
|F/C Nerlens Noel||C Gorgui Dieng|
What They're Saying:
Jeff Goodman of CBSSports.com tweeted an update on Gorgui Dieng's health that surely made Cardinals fans breathe easy:
Rick Pitino tells CBSSports that Gorgui Dieng is 100 percent playing Saturday against Kentucky -- cbssports.com/collegebasketb…— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanCBS) December 27, 2012
Louisville's star center hasn't played since injuring his wrist against Missouri in November.
Famed statistician Ken Pomeroy directed us toward the rankings of his contemporary nerd, Jeff Sagarin. He tweeted out where Louisville ranks in Sagarin's Elo ratings:
Sagarin Elo top 5: Duke, Michigan, Wyoming, Florida, Louisville.
— Ken Pomeroy (@kenpomeroy) December 20, 2012
For what it's worth, Pomeroy has Louisville ranked second in his own advanced ratings.
Key Matchup: Gorgui Dieng vs. Nerlens Noel and Alex Poythress
Despite Kentucky's relatively disappointing record, the Noel-Poythress duo has been as good as advertised. Poythress, in particular, has been impressive on offense, averaging 14.5 points per game on 65 percent shooting.
Dieng won't be counted on to score the way Noel and Poythress will, but he will be counted on to shut both of them down in the paint. That's a tall order (pun intended) for Dieng in his first game back from injury, but we will see if he is up for the task.
Healthy wrist or not, the 6'11" center from Senegal has the length and shot-blocking acumen to affect, if not take over, games. He single-handedly dominated top-seeded Michigan State in last year's Elite Eight, and he even held his own, relatively, against Anthony Davis in the Final Four.
Both Poythress and Noel are shooting over 50 percent on the season. Kentucky is counting on getting what they're used to from that duo: easy buckets. If Dieng can take that away, the Wildcats could be in trouble offensively.
Blessed with home-court advantage, loads of experience and comparable athleticism, Louisville should be, and is, favored to end its losing streak against Kentucky.
But they'll need all three of those things—the home-court advantage, experience and athleticism—to be in rare form if they want to get it done. The Wildcats, winners of four straight, are rounding into form, which is a scary thought for every team in the country.
They'll wake up for this nationally televised game, viewing it as a chance to redeem their early struggles. Expect Kentucky to keep it close throughout before giving way to the experience of Peyton Siva and Russ Smith in the final minutes.
Louisville 74, Kentucky 70