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Kentucky, Louisville both seeking signature win of season so far
The Louisville-Kentucky matchup will still have the Bluegrass State at a fever pitch, but Big Blue Nation and Cardinals fans may be holding back just a little bit.
Both sides have enough questions about their own teams to feel too confident about taking shots at a rival. (But, then again, this is Louisville-Kentucky. Anything goes.)
Kentucky, with three losses, is probably more concerned than Louisville at this stage of the season. Although none of UK's defeats were at home, Baylor and North Carolina are sitting near the end of the top 25. The talent remains clear, but the chemistry is still a work in progress.
For comparison's sake, Kentucky’s national title team in 2012 lost twice all year, once on a buzzer beater at Indiana and to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament final. Kentucky hopes 2010-11 is a better corollary. The Wildcats lost twice in the non-conference but lost to SEC also-rans on the road ... all that before reaching the Final Four.
Louisville fans have received less negative feedback about their team, but the Cardinals haven’t really given them much opportunity to get frustrated. Like Kentucky, Louisville lost to North Carolina, but Louisville has faced only one other team in the top 100 on KenPom.com (Southern Miss).
With four losses between the two teams, the rivalry game lacks the high rankings expected back in the preseason, but the significance hasn’t diminished.
Conference play begins in the coming weeks, meaning Kentucky and Louisville are both seeking their last chance for a major non-conference win.
Related: Stories from those on both sides of Louisville-Kentucky
Louisville at Kentucky
Time: Saturday, 4 p.m. Eastern
Site: Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky.
Jones has been outstanding for most of the season in taking over for veteran point guard Peyton Siva, but he’s hit a bit of a hiccup in the last three weeks. Jones averaged 14.9 points as of Dec. 7 while causing havoc in the defensive end. The junior college transfer suffered a wrist injury on his shooting hand to miss one game before struggling to a degree in his last two games. Jones still contributed six assists, five steals and no assists against FIU on Sept. 21. He may be back to form with a week to rest. Louisville coach Rick Pitino may find out Saturday if Jones is the top flight-point guard the Cards need to defend their national title.
Top Matchup: Kentucky’s Julius Randle vs. Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell
Even on a team filled with talent at every position, Kentucky hasn’t proven it can win if Randle is having difficulty. The forward went 3 of 9 in the loss to North Carolina and 5 of 10 in the loss to Baylor. He came back to score 29 points with 10 rebounds against an overmatched Belmont frontcourt. Just as important, Randle had only one turnover against Belmont in a season in which he’s averaged 3.3.
Key Stat: 66.5 percent. Combined free throw shooting for both teams
Despite leading the nation in free throw attempts per game, Kentucky is averaging 67.5 percent on free throws, an Achilles heel at times this season. Louisville has been even worse at 65.5 percent. Even Russ Smith has been struggling from the line, shooting seven percentage points lower than last year’s mark. This will be worth watching in the event of a close game.
Louisville’s Key Storyline: Russ Smith's and Chris Jones’ defensive pressure
Kentucky point guard Andrew Harrison hasn’t been quite the second coming of other John Calipari point guards — though many of the Calipari greats have struggled early. Harrison faces another quality Louisville pressure defense as Smith and Jones have led a Cardinals team that forces turnovers on 26.3 percent of possessions (second after VCU). The U of L duo hasn’t been tested since facing North Carolina.
Kentucky’s Key Storyline: Chemistry
If you’re the kind of person who likes to keep tabs on chemistry and body language, Kentucky will give you a field day. Frustration has been clear for Kentucky as Calipari has been trying to coax this team into chemistry. Randle responded to the call from Calipari in the win over Belmont on Saturday, but the young Wildcats may encounter more adversity against Louisville even than a close call against the Bruins.