The stakes aren’t quite as high the last time Kentucky and Louisville met, but -- hey, who are we kidding -- the stakes are always high in this series.
The national title game isn’t on the line as it was when Kentucky defeated Louisville 69-60 in the Final Four. Still, it’s not difficult to find a good reason one team in the Bluegrass State needs to defeat the other.
For Kentucky, the Wildcats are looking to re-establish themselves as a national contender. Holdovers from the Final Four meeting on the Kentucky side of the bench are few and far between. Instead, this new cast of characters from Lexington needs to reclaim its footing after losses to Duke, Notre Dame and Baylor.
As opposed to last season, Louisville enters the game as the title contender, but the Cardinals have a handful of veterans who have never defeated Kentucky. The last Louisville win in the series was a 74-71 victory over a Billy Gillispie-coached Wildcats team. Ending a four-game losing streak would go a long way to erasing memories of the Final Four and building momentum into the Big East season.
Game of the week
Kentucky probable starters
Louisville probable starters
Louisville again is paced by its high-scoring backcourt duo of Russ Smith and Peyton Siva. Smith continues to be a tantalizing player to watch with his high-risk, high-reward game, but it’s paying off this season. He’s making 43.3 percent of his shots from the floor and 33.8 percent of his 3-pointers despite averaging nearly 15 shots per game. As much as Louisville values Smith’s 19.7 points per game and Siva’s 11.4, they are just as important on the defensive end of the floor. Louisville is forcing a turnover on 27 percent of its opponents’ possessions, a figure that leads the nation and is up from 18.9 percent a year ago. Kentucky has struggled to get its backcourt in order, starting with an absence from point guard Ryan Harrow. Freshman Archie Goodwin stepped into his place as point guard for a time. Goodwin leads Kentucky in scoring (16 ppg), but he’s coming off a 4-of-17 performance from the field against Marshall. Harrow has a 16-to-3 assist-to-turnover ratio in the four games since the Baylor loss. Goodwin has a 14-to-12 ratio since then.
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Nerlens Noel has delivered so far in the defensive end for Kentucky. The freshman is averaging 3.7 blocks, 2.7 steals and 9.1 rebounds per game. Louisville may not have anyone to counter his length around the basket, especially if Gorgui Dieng is not in in pre-injury form. Like many of Kentucky’s players, freshman Alex Poythress is still feeling his way through the game. He fouled out of his last game against Marshall and went 2-of-8 from the floor against Lipscomb a week earlier. Meanwhile, Louisville’s frontcourt is showing signs of improvement. Sophomore Wayne Blackshear has shown a more physical edge since recovering from a shoulder injury that kept him out most of last season. He’s also added a perimeter game that wasn’t there as a recruit. If Blackshear and Chane Behanan can match the play of Louisville’s starting guards, the Cardinals will solidify themselves as a Final Four contender. Stephen Van Treese has done a solid job in place of Dieng, but it would be a major upgrade to have the junior playing at 100 percent.
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Louisville’s Luke Hancock, a George Mason transfer, started the season in a dreadful shooting slump, but he’s shown signs of breaking out of it in recent games, partly because he’s taking fewer shots. Hancock is 6 of 12 from 3-point range in the last four games. What’s never slumped has been Hancock’s leadership, which was praised from Day One. Louisville coach Rick Pitino has also been pleased with guard Kevin Ware’s production off the bench in place of Russ Smith. For Kentucky, sophomore Kyle Wiltjer, one of the team’s more experienced players, has been relegated to the bench. Kentucky needs him to be a consistent outside threat, but he’s been streaky. A lack of point guard depth, given the struggles of Harrow, has been evident for Kentucky.
The return of Louisville center Gorgui Dieng after more than a month could be a major development in Louisville’s favor. The Cardinals have played just fine without Dieng, a 6-foot-11 defensive force down low who suffered a broken wrist on Nov. 23. Louisville may be the better team regardless if Dieng is at full strength, but his return would help even up the size deficiency between Louisville’s frontcourt and Noel. At first, Dieng was projected to return Jan. 2 against Providence. Although Rick Pitino says he'll start with no limitations in playing time, Dieng’s effectiveness and conditioning will be worth watching.
Prediction: Louisville 72, Kentucky 63
Kentucky returned to form since the back-to-back losses to Notre Dame and Baylor, but the Wildcats did so against Samford, Portland, Lispcomb and Marshall. Facing Louisville will be a different challenge. Though Calipari may be more confident in his point guard situation than he was earlier this month, Louisville’s propensity to force turnovers may be a poor matchup for the Kentucky guards.