1. Full-Strength Matchup
For the first time this season, UK and UGA should both be at full strength in their matchup. The Wildcats won the first meeting, 90-81 in overtime on Jan. 31 at Rupp Arena, without a hobbled De'Aaron Fox. Fortunately for UK, Malik Monk had one of his best offensive nights of the season, scoring 37 points to rescue the Big Blue. When the teams met on Feb. 18 for a rematch at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, it was Georgia that had to deal with a setback as talented power forward Yante Maten was forced to leave the game just moments after tipoff due to a knee injury. Kentucky took advantage of his absence and won another close contest, 82-77, despite an amazing 36-point night from the Bulldogs' J.J. Frazier. This time around, it looks like the best version of both teams will be on the court.
2. Defensive Strategy
Georgia has been very successful running pick-and-roll against Kentucky with Frazier and Maten the last two years. Frazier has been a particularly tough assignment, using his quickness and impressive change-of-speed ability to attack the basket or pull up for mid-range jumpers. He has averaged 26 points per game in his last three against the Cats. In the first meeting this season, UK head coach John Calipari had to do something he's rarely done during his time in Lexington -- play extended minutes in a 2-3 zone. As much as it pierced his man-to-man soul to do it, the gambit likely meant the difference between a win and a loss as the Cats slowed UGA down just enough to force overtime and surge to victory in the extra five minutes. Will Calipari need more zone to win in Nashville? Perhaps, but he sounded reluctant in recent interviews, insisting that a national championship cannot be won without strong man-to-man defense. Georgia has its own defensive concerns, namely finding a way to slow down both Monk, who killed them in the first meeting, and Fox, who got to the basket at will late in the second meeting to deliver the UK victory.
So what happens if all the stars have their typical strong performance? Who will be the difference-makers? Frazier and Maten both had great games at Rupp, combining for 45 points, but it was unheralded forward Derek Ogbeide who may have given the Dawgs their best chance to win. He finished with 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting from the field and pulled down a game-high 13 rebounds. He didn't have his scoring touch in the rematch, but still managed to grab 11 boards. Kentucky must account for him on the glass. For the Cats, sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe had a near triple-double in the game at Rupp, scoring 23 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and dishing out eight assists. He followed that up with one of his worst games of the season at Georgia, but UK's trio of seniors -- Dominique Hawkins, Mychal Mulder and Derek Willis -- saved the day by combining for 25 points. If you had to pick one player for UK, it might be Willis. When he plays well, the Cats are really difficult to beat.