Kentucky Basketball: Grading Position-by-Position Matchups Against Louisville
The Louisville Cardinals welcome the Kentucky Wildcats this Saturday for an in-state rivalry between two of the best programs, and coaches, in college basketball history.
After both started ranked in the Top Five, the teams have gone in disparate directions to start the season. Louisville (11-1) remains in the Top Five, their sole loss coming to the top-ranked Duke Blue Devils.
Kentucky (8-3) also lost to Duke but exacerbated that with subsequent losses to Notre Dame and Baylor. Now unranked, they've got some growing up to do if, come March, they want to make a serious Final Four run.
Regardless of records, both teams are loaded with blue-chip talent. Let's take a look at how they compare, position-by-position:
Point Guard: Ryan Harrow vs. Peyton Siva
Harrow: 7.0 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 2.9 APG, 38.6 FG%
Siva: 11.4 PPG, 6.3 APG, 2.3 SPG, 43.6 FG%
Harrow, the N.C. State transfer, is starting to break out after starting slow. He was uncharacteristically assertive against Marshall last week, putting up 17 shots en route to 23 points.
But, it'll be hard for him to keep with Louisville's relentless senior leader Peyton Siva. Siva's scored in double figures seven times this season and dished out 10-plus assists three times.
Harrow's been a keystone for the Wildcats this year. When he plays timid, or scattered, the Kentucky offense tends to devolve. Siva's tenacious defense could give Harrow, and, by extension, the whole Kentucky offense, serious problems.
Shooting Guard: Julius Mays vs. Russ Smith
Mays: 9.3 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 3.6 APG, 35.8 FG%
Smith: 19.7 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 2.8 APG, 2.8 SPG, 43.3 FG%
Mays, another transfer who started his career at N.C. State, leads Kentucky in minutes, playing almost 33 per night. Almost five years older than his freshman teammates, his experience and aplomb have made him a stalwart in Calipari's rotation.
On Saturday, however, he'll need more than intangibles. He'll need to bring a defensive A-game that he, perhaps, isn't capable of bringing.
Smith has played himself onto the shortlist of Naismith Award finalist this season, averaging a cool 20 points per game. He'll be counted on to carry the offense when it goes stagnant.
Small Forward: Archie Goodwin vs. Wayne Blackshear
Goodwin: 16.0 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 4.2 APG, 45.9 FG%
Blackshear: 10.0 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 44.6 FG%
Goodwin was the lowest-ranked of Kentucky's big three, placing "only" 14th on Rivals' final rankings. But in the team's first 11 games, he's arguably been the best player in the trio.
Blackshear's impressed in an expanded role this season, but he'll be playing out of his league in this one.
Power Forward: Alex Poythress vs. Chane Behanan
Poythress: 14.5 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 64.9 FG%
Behanan: 10.8 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 49.5 FG%
Poythress and Nerlens Noel have, predictably, formed a dangerous one-two punch down low for Kentucky. The 6'8'' forward from Tennessee has been particularly efficient around the rim, shooting at a smooth 65 percent clip.
Behanan has earned his stripes for Louisville, settling into the same, do-it-all, role-player position he filled last season. Watching him bang bodies with Poythress will be a treat to watch, but the latter's athleticism gives him a slight edge.
Center: Nerlens Noel vs. Gorgui Dieng
Noel: 10.7 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 2.7 SPG, 3.7 BPG, 53.4 FG%
Dieng: 8.2 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 2.4 APG, 2.0 BPG, 50.0 FG%
Both men, along with Kansas' Jeff Withey and a handful of others, are on the short list for "best shot-blocker in the country" honors.
While they pose similar threats on the defensive end, Noel gets the slight edge because he's slightly more active offensively. He's not quite as polished as we hoped he'd be, but he's a step ahead of Dieng—especially considering Gorgui's bum wrist.
Sixth Man: Kyle Wiltjer vs. Montrezl Harrell
Wiltjer: 11.4 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 1.9 APG, 44.4 FG%
Harrell: 6.7 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 61.8 FG%
Harrell, a 4-star forward recruit from Virginia, has been a minor revelation for the Cards this year. His bounce on the wing and his willingness to hit the glass have given Louisville a solid boost off the bench.
But Wiltjer possesses, and has exercised, the ability to take over games with his pinpoint shooting. The former starter is third on the team in scoring and is something of a keystone for the Wildcats. He only has 14 total points in the teams' three losses.
He'll need to come up big if the Cats wanna leave Louisville victorious.
Kentucky takes the advantage at four of six positions, but what does that really mean? Just because they can beat Louisville in match play doesn't mean they can beat them stroke-for-stroke...right?
In truth, the margin by which Goodwin-Poythress-Noel edges out Blackshear-Behanan-Dieng is much smaller than the one by which Siva-Smith beats Harrow-Mays.
This is a perfectly even game that, if everything plays out as predicted, Louisville's home-court advantage could make the difference in.
But then again, when does anything ever play out as predicted?
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