Kentucky vs. Louisville: Breaking Down Key Matchups in Clash of In-State Rivals
It may not be the clash of top-five titans that many expected it to be in the preseason, but Saturday's matchup between the Kentucky Wildcats and No. 4 Louisville Cardinals will certainly captivate everyone in the Bluegrass State.
John Calipari's squad comes into Saturday's matchup winners of four straight games after a 4-3 start sent the Wildcats outside the Top 25. They'll walk into the KFC Yum! Center as 7.5-point underdogs (per Vegas Insider), a word that Kentucky fans haven't heard too often in Calipari's tenure.
On the other bench, Rick Pitino has to be quite pleased with his team. The Cardinals are 11-1 on the season, with the only loss coming against top-ranked Duke.
Still, despite Louisville being favored, there are a few key matchups that could decide the game. With that in mind, let's take a look at a few particular individual matchups worth watching on Saturday.
Nerlens Noel vs. Gorgui Dieng
Obviously, this is a special matchup in Dieng's eyes for more than one reason. First and foremost, Saturday will the first time the Louisville center has played since breaking a bone in his wrist against Missouri on Nov. 23. Dieng's absence in the middle was felt by the Cardinals in each of their seven games without their defensive stopper, but mostly in the loss against Duke.
However, it will be far more special because Dieng's parents, who live in Senegal, will see him play for the first time in his young career.
It looks like Dieng's folks will also get to see their son play one doozy of a matchup on Saturday as well. The Louisville center, who comes into Saturday averaging 8.2 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game, will ostensibly be tasked with guarding scintillating Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel.
While Noel hasn't come in and had an Anthony Davis-like impact the way many predicted, he's certainly been a defensive menace in the middle. Coming into Saturday's contest, the McDonald's All-American is averaging 3.7 blocks and 2.7 assists to go along with his 10.7 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.
Most of those numbers come from Noel's other-worldly athleticism. There may be no player in the country who has his elite combination of size, quickness and defensive awareness.
Nevertheless, if he's not too rusty, Dieng is exactly the type of player who can give Noel trouble. He's extremely powerful in the paint and isn't exactly what you would call a slouch in the athleticism department either.
The player who wins this battle in the middle may wind up affecting the outcome in facets far more intricate than points and rebounds.
Archie Goodwin vs. Russ Smith
We go from two guys whose main responsibility is defensive excellence to two guys who captivate audiences by filling up the buckets.
Smith was a superstar in last year's regular-season matchup for Louisville. Though the Cardinals lost, 69-62, the then-sophomore guard dropped 30 points on Kentucky to keep them in the contest. Unfortunately for Louisville, that excellence did not translate to the Final Four, where Smith went 4-of-15 shooting and disappeared when the team needed him most.
This season, he's been far closer to the guy who nearly single-handedly beat the Wildcats than the player who disappeared. Coming into Saturday's matchup, Smith is averaging 19.7 points per game and hasn't finished with fewer than 13 in any contest thus far.
Smith has also continued his brilliant play on the defensive end, which could come in handy against Kentucky's Goodwin. He may have been the least sought-after of the Wildcats' 5-star freshmen, but Goodwin has also been the team's leading scorer at 16.0 points per game.
Goodwin has scored in double-digits in every game other than one clunker against Notre Dame and also handled the point guard reins admirably when Ryan Harrow was out. He's an above-average ball-handler who could give Smith fits if he starts hitting shots early.
Alex Poythress vs. Wayne Blackshear
Unlike the previous two matchups, it's highly unlikely that Poythress and Blackshear actually guard one another very often.
Regardless, it stands to reason that one of these two athletic marvels will come through with a huge game. And whether it's Poythress or Blackshear, whoever steps up will almost certainly key their team to victory.
Obviously, Poythress' performance means more on a nightly basis to Kentucky than Blackshear to Louisville. The freshman forward comes into this game as the Wildcats' second-leading scorer (14.5 PPG) and has been one of the most quietly efficient players in the nation, knocking down nearly 65 percent of his shots.
Louisville's guard-heavy attack doesn't have many inside stalwarts other than Dieng, so if Poythress plays aggressively against Chane Behanan, he may be able to find easy buckets and draw fouls on the inside.
Blackshear may be even more interesting. Perhaps the most athletic player in college basketball, Blackshear is as captivating as he is inconsistent. He's hit double-digit points in only six games this season and has five different instances where he made two field goals or less.
If he shows up before the home crowd, Louisville should be golden. If he doesn't, the Cardinals are in a heap of trouble and Poythress could wind up being an x-factor in a Kentucky upset.
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