Kentucky Basketball: Early Preview for Wildcats' Showdown vs. Louisville

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Kentucky Basketball: Early Preview for Wildcats' Showdown vs. Louisville
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Bragging rights in the Bluegrass state are once again up for grabs. 

No rivalry in college basketball has been more compelling over the last couple of years than Louisville vs. Kentucky. 

John Calipari's Wildcats won the national title in 2012 after getting past Louisville in the Final Four, only for Rick Pitino's Cardinals to take championship trophy back west in 2013. 

With Louisville still adjusting to life without Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng, boasting its best win against Southern Miss, and Kentucky still gelling a talented-yet-raw freshmen class, it's tough to know what to expect in this year's installment of the rivalry. 

Let's take an early look.

Note: All stats courtesy of kenpom.com (subscription needed), unless noted otherwise.

 

Date: Dec. 28, 2013

Time: 4 p.m. ET

Where: Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky.

TV: CBS

Live Stream: CBS Sports Live

 

Key for Kentucky: Control Russ Smith

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Russ Smith has the ability to change a game in a heartbeat. Not literally, of course, but Smith is really fast, really explosive and really difficult to stop once he gets into "Russdiculous" a.k.a. "You-Aren't-Going-to-Stop-Me" mode. 

The senior can score in a variety of ways. According to hoop-math.com, he is taking 31.5 percent of his shots at the rim (where he's converting at a gaudy 73.3 percent clip) and 46.9 percent of his shots from beyond the arc (where he's hitting 33.3 percent).

Moreover, without Siva, he has turned into a better distributor, as RushTheCourt.net's Jameson Fleming points out:

Smith has also transformed into a far more efficient player this season—52.8 effective field-goal percentage is the best of his career—and he can beat you in the half court off the pick-and-roll, but the key to at least limiting him remains the same as always: Keep him out of transition, where he's deadly. 

In order to do that, Kentucky must protect the ball. 

That's easier said than done, of course. Freshmen Andrew Harrison, James Young and to a lesser extent Aaron Harrison have struggled with turnovers so far this season, leading to an 18.8 turnover percentage for Kentucky, which ranks 194th best in America. 

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

On the flip side, Smith (140th) and Chris Jones (32nd) rank near the top of the country in steal percentage. That's not a good combination for the Wildcats. 

Kentucky will have to reverse those early trends and keep the Cardinals out of transition.

 

Key for Louisville: Montrezl Harrell vs. Kentucky's Bigs

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Just like Russ Smith, Kentucky's frontcourt has the ability to change the game. 

Led by load-in-the-middle Julius Randle and defensive force Zach Morris Willie Cauley-Stein, the Wildcats are first in America in offensive rebounding percentage (they grab a ridiculous 45.7 percent of their own misses) and 13th in block percentage. 

As Baylor showed during its 67-62 win in early December, though, it is possible to beat the Wildcats on the inside. Calipari talked about the importance of rebounding after that one, via the Courier-Journal's Kyle Tucker:

“They outhustled us, they outworked us, they deserved to win," Calipari said. "They outrebounded us by 16 rebounds. Sixteen rebounds. Eighteen offensive. Three rebounds, four rebounds down the stretch in the last four minutes, we win the game. They got every single one of them."

Enter Montrezl Harrell. 

The sophomore out of North Carolina is known most around the country right now for his rim-rattling dunks, but he has the athleticism, strength, talent and prowess on the glass to play with Randle. He's already looking at a first-round pick in June, but going up against this frontcourt gives him one of his best opportunities to skyrocket his stock. 

Harrell, who has seen his minutes increase from 16.2 to 24.7 this season, needs to step up in the limelight on Saturday.

Chane Behanan will also be key. 

 

Prediction: Kentucky 72, Louisville 75

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Kentucky has historically owned this rivalry, and being at Rupp undoubtedly helps, but it's tough to bet against Louisville, no matter how untested the Cardinals are this year. 

Smith is playing National Player of the Year type basketball next to Chris Jones, Pitino has the athletes down low to match Kentucky's biggest strength and the Cards have the clear advantage in the experience department. 

Should these teams cross paths in March, though, the outlook will be much different. 

 

 

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