Santa Claus has come and gone; now focus turns to basketball in the state of Kentucky. On Saturday, No. 4 Louisville (11-1) will host Kentucky (8-3) in the Battle for the Bluegrass. This will be the 45th meeting between the two rivals and UK currently holds a 4-game winning streak.
The young, but talented UK squad hit some bumps early which caused some concern to the Big Blue faithful. After 7 games, the Wildcats were 4-3 and did not look as talented as the previous three teams under head coach John Calipari. The Cats have struggled against teams from power conferences. UK fell to No. 3 Duke (11-0), and then suffered back-to-back losses to Notre Dame (12-1) and Baylor (8-3). The most concerning was the 55-64 loss to Baylor which ending UK’s 55-game home court winning streak. The loss eventually knocked then No. 8 UK from the Top 25 rankings. Since the loss, UK has reeled off 4 straight easy victories against Samford (3-10), Portland (7-7), Libscomp (5-6), and Marshall (7-6).
The Cats are led in scoring by freshman Archie Goodwin who averages 16.0 points per game. Goodwin is also the top assist maker with 4.4 per game, but also turns it over 3.3 times per contest. UK’s best big man is 6’10” freshman Nerlens Noel. Noel is pulling down a team high 9.1 rebounds and adding 10.7 points per game. The well-rounded Noel is also a shot blocking threat in the middle with 3.7 blocks per game. The other scoring threats for UK include freshman Alex Poythress with 14.5 per game and sharp shooting sophomore Kyle Wiltjer with 11.4 per game. Wiltjer for the most part can be found roaming behind the 3-point line and shoots 44.4 percent from behind the arc.
For the Cardinals, junior Russ Smith leads the team in scoring with 19.7 points per game. Smith is also a lockdown defender and steals the ball 2.8 times per game. Junior center Gorqui Dieng is the top rebounder with 8.0 per game, and it appeared he was going to miss his eighth straight game due to a wrist injury suffered back on Nov. 23. However, head coach Rick Pitino is stating Dieng is healthy enough to start. Louisville will continue to look to sophomore Chane Behanan to control the glass as he pulls down 7.6 rebounds to go along with his 10.8 points per game. Crafty senior guard Peyton Siva runs the offense as he averages 6.3 assist per game. Siva also contributes 11.4 points and 2.3 steals per game. Louisville also hopes to get big minutes out of sophomore Wayne Blackshear. Blackshear is averaging 10.0 points per game, but 17.5 over the last two outings. His inside-outside ability makes him a match-up problem for most.
When the Cats enter the KFC Yum! Center, they will be surrounded by 22,090 plus screaming fans. The atmosphere and intensity of this rivalry can rattle the most mature veteran basketball player. For UK to have a chance, the UK freshman will have to find composure early and attempt to take the crowd out of the game. For Louisville, it is important to use their defensive pressure to control the tempo. The Cards will have to pick and choose their opportunities and Siva and Smith must stay out of foul trouble.
What to watch for:
· UK will have to limit turnovers, UofL’s guards will harass defensively entire game
· UofL must put a hand in Kyle Wiltjer’s face, he can knock it down from deep and could force the Cards out of their 2-3 zone if he’s connecting
· If UK focuses on stopping Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, Wayne Blackshear and Chane Behanan will make them pay
· UK must stay out of foul trouble or it could be a long day in Louisville
· UofL 72 UK 58