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Sweet 16 Preview and Picks: Louisville Cardinals vs. Kentucky Wildcats

Russ Smith

Russ Smith

Take note, college football, this is what you were missing from your postseason before the playoff took over.

The state of Kentucky is a state of Alabama of sorts for college basketball. Just as Alabama and Auburn accounted for every national title from 2009-12, Louisville and Kentucky have enjoyed a similar, but shorter, streak with the Bluegrass State claiming the last two national championships.

But along the way, Kentucky defeated Louisville in a Final Four game in 2012, and now the two will meet in the Sweet 16. That’s two postseason meetings in the last three seasons. Just ask anyone in Kentucky if that’s diminished the regular season meeting.

“People grieve for a year after the game,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “People celebrate for a year after the game. I've tried to not make it bigger than it is. But it doesn't work.”

Not now, when the stakes have been higher in the last three seasons, with both teams capable of winning national championships.

“There's no way around it,” Louisville guard Russ Smith said. “But at the end of the day they're right, it's much bigger than a rivalry. It's a Sweet 16 game.”

Louisville vs. Kentucky
Time: 9:30 p.m. Eastern
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Greg Anthony
Region: Midwest (Indianapolis)

Athlon Editor Picks
David Fox: Louisville 68-62
Braden Gall: Louisville 70-64
Mitch Light: Louisville 68-61
Nathan Rush: Louisville 73-70

How Louisville got here:

Louisville’s two games in the NCAA Tournament haven’t been pretty for a team that has look of the national title contender. Manhattan, coached by Rick Pitino disciple Steve Masiello, was able to counter Louisville possession by possession. The Saint Louis win in the round of 32 was a sloppy, offense-optional 66-51 win.

How Kentucky got here here:

Kentucky is finally starting to look like the kind of team projected as a national title contender in the preseason. James Young started hitting shots, and Andrew and Aaron Harrison played their best game of the season against Wichita State in the round of 32. Continue that, and Kentucky can keep playing in the Tournament.

Sweet 16 Previews

Michigan-Tennessee | Iowa State-UConn | Virginia-Michigan State

Key for Louisville to get to the Elite Eight: Russ Smith getting his game together

Rick Pitino was frustrated with his star guard after the first weekend of the Tournament with good reason. Smith turned the ball over 13 times in two games while shooting 6 of 19 from the floor. The senior is only four games removed from scoring 42 points in a game against Houston and six games from 13 assists against UConn. If anyone can turn things around in a matter of days, it’s Smith.

Key for Kentucky to get to the Elite Eight: Prove the Wichita State game wasn’t a fluke

Kentucky underachieved for most of the season before facing an undefeated Wichita State team in the round of 32. The game was as hotly contested as any Elite Eight or Final Four game for most of the second half, and Kentucky was able to escape with the 78-76 win thanks to a handful of non-Julius Randle freshmen playing their best game of the year. Perhaps the best thing to sustain this momentum is to face a rival in the Sweet 16.

Player to watch: Montrezl Harrell, Louisville

The Cardinals forward has been on a hot streak since late February, but he’s faced few frontcourts like that of Kentucky. If Harrell can be a double-double type player against Julius Randle and Willie Cauley-Stein — Harrell had only six points and four rebounds in the first meeting — Louisville will have a good chance to win.