No. 3 Louisville basketball set for ultimate test in No. 19 Kentucky

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The No. 3 ranked Louisville basketball program is set for the Battle of the Bluegrass, as they head to Rupp Arena to face the 19th ranked Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday afternoon. Can the Cards get it done?

As Christmas comes and goes, so does the much-anticipated rivalry matchup between the Louisville basketball program and Kentucky.

It’s one filled with immense history and passion, and it’ll be no different when the two powerhouse programs hit the floor on Saturday afternoon. Both teams had extremely high expectations coming into this season, and they both still have the potential to fulfill those expectations as there’s plenty of time until March. However, the two teams are in very different positions right now and they’ve recently gone in very different directions.

Louisville has had an extra-long break to not only go home and spend time with family for the holidays but also to prepare for their biggest regular-season game.

They last played on December 18th, so that marks 10 days between games here, which is pretty rare in college hoops. The Cards defeated Miami (OH) in their last game, as they overpowered the RedHawks in the second half en route to a 70-46 win that moved them to an 11-1 record.

Kentucky has had a similar break, albeit not as long. They last played on December 21st and lost against the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes in Las Vegas. Three days prior, the Cats shockingly lost a game to Pac-12 bottomfeeder Utah. When I think about it off the top of my head, I can’t remember a Kentucky team losing two games in a row leading into the Louisville game. They returned home from their stint in Las Vegas with an 8-3 record, which was one that Coach John Calipari is probably not particularly happy with.

Since their first loss of the season against Texas Tech, Louisville fell to the third overall spot in the AP Top 25 poll and they did not move in the new rankings despite previous No. 1 Kansas falling to Villanova. The Cards now sit behind Gonzaga and Ohio State, respectively. Coach Chris Mack has continued to tell his team that December rankings do not matter, and that stance certainly amplifies when it comes to this game.

Kentucky was as high as No. 1 earlier this season, but the few losses that have come their way caused them to fall to 19th in the newest AP Poll.

Coach Mack knows that this Kentucky team is extremely talented, and they realize that they’ve been enduring some hiccups that are associated with fielding a team around youth. The Cards should know that this Kentucky team can play a lot better than the No. 19 team in the country because they could get a lump of coal if they don’t.

As they spend the next few days preparing for this overmatched opponent, the Cards should not be overlooking Kentucky despite the recent skid they are on. They’ll need to play one of their best games of the season against the Cats. Fans are extremely tired of seeing the Cards play so good against other top teams and then seeing them fold when they go up against their biggest rival, even though they might be a better team. It could change in March and it could be a different story on Saturday, but right now the Cards are playing like a better basketball team than Kentucky, and there is no better way to showcase that than by winning a head-to-head matchup.

It’s been an up-and-down journey thus far for Kentucky’s basketball team. They started their season with a bang, going to a neutral floor and defeating the preseason No. 1 Michigan State Spartans. In their next game, they struggled to put away Utah Valley, but they eventually pulled away in the final minutes. After that, they proceeded to handle business in their next five games, including winning a home game against Georgia Tech, whom the Cards will face later this season in ACC play. This past week, the Cats suffered major setbacks, as we already mentioned that they fell to Utah and Ohio State.

The Wildcats have a few players that have experienced the rivalry game in past seasons, but they have a roster primarily consisting of extremely talented freshmen. They have four players who are scoring in double-figures so far this season, with guys like Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey, Nick Richards, and Immanuel Quickley. Alongside these guys, Kentucky has a bunch of guys who are also very capable of getting a lot of buckets, like EJ Montgomery, Keion Brooks Jr., Nate Sestina, and Kahlil Whitney. Coach Calipari gameday rotation usually involves those players that were just listed, as he only plays 8 or 9 guys in big games against big opponents. You could expect the same against a top-five Louisville team.

According to KenPom, Kentucky is the 16th best team in the nation, which indicates that this team is capable of matching the Cards on paper and the court. Pomeroy ranks them as the 30th best team in terms of adjusted offensive efficiency, as well as being the 17th best in terms of adjusted defensive efficiency. They remain as one of the favorites to win the SEC, and that should help them get a quality seed in the NCAA Tournament.

As we move onto the Louisville side of things, the Cards haven’t endured the same amount of struggles that Kentucky has thus far. Louisville did play a pretty bad game in their rough loss to Texas Tech on a neutral floor, but that same Tech team is again ranked in the top 25. Louisville has some solid victories that include a home win over No. 11 Michigan earlier this month, as well as a home win over Pittsburgh and a neutral site win over Western Kentucky. They’ve taken care of business against all of their low mid-major opponents in non-conference.

The Cards combat Kentucky’s youthful talent with their masterful experience, as they are one of the more experienced teams in the country. They only have two players who average double-figures, in Jordan Nwora and Steven Enoch, but there’s a story to every statistic. Nwora is the guy who Coach Mack relies on to get buckets and he rightfully is the team’s leading scorer. Louisville has guys like Dwayne Sutton and Ryan McMahon who also could be scoring in double-figures, but they surrender some looks due to the way the Cards have built their offense.

Nwora’s scoring ability has him as one of the favorites to win the National Player of the Year award, but he’s still got a lot to do to build his case. Not many teams can match the experience Louisville has, but they also have a few freshmen who are ready to put themselves on the line in this rivalry. Samuell Williamson and David Johnson are the two freshmen who have asserted themselves as constants in Chris Mack’s rotation and both are talented enough to get involved in a variety of ways on the court.

Just like their standing in the AP Poll, the Cardinals sit at third in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, but they could make a case to be higher with a win over Kentucky. Coach Mack’s team is ranked as the 11th-best team in adjusted offensive efficiency and they have the second-best adjusted defensive efficiency in the nation. The Cards are going to be doing everything they can to be adequately prepared for this game, and it should certainly be a good one. It’s a major opportunity for Louisville to send a statement to the rest of the nation, as the game will be nationally televised and they’ll be playing in a sure-to-be raucous environment at Rupp Arena. With that in mind, let’s take a look at everything you need to know ahead of the game.

Who: No. 3 Louisville Cardinals at no. 19 Kentucky Wildcats

Where: Rupp Arena (Lexington, Kentucky)

When: 3:45 PM ET, Saturday, December 28th

Previous Meeting and Series: Kentucky defeated Louisville 71-58 in the last meeting between the two rivals on December 29th, 2018. Louisville has an all-time 16-36 record against the Wildcats.

How To Watch: CBS

How To Listen: WHAS 840 AM

Projected Starters:

Louisville:

G, Darius Perry, #2, Jr.

6-2, 195 Pounds

5.8 points, 2.0 rebounds, 4.6 assists

G, Ryan McMahon, #30, Sr.

6-0, 180 Pounds

9.8 points, 1.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists

F, Jordan Nwora, #33, Jr.

6-7, 225 Pounds

21.2 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.4 assists

F, Dwayne Sutton, #24, Sr.

6-5, 215 Pounds

9.0 points, 8.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists

C, Steven Enoch, #23, Sr. 

6-10, 260 Pounds

11.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, 0.4 assists

Kentucky:

G, Ashton Hagans, #0, So.

6-3, 192 Pounds

13.9 points, 3.9 rebounds, 7.2 assists

G, Tyrese Maxey, #3, Fr.

6-3, 198 Pounds

13.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists

F, Kahlil Whitney, #2, Fr.

6-6, 210 Pounds

5.2 points, 2.5 rebounds, 0.5 assists

F, Nate Sestina, #1, Sr.

6-9, 245 Pounds

7.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists

C, Nick Richards, #4, Jr.

6-11, 244 Pounds

11.7 points, 6.9 rebounds, 0.5 assists

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