Currently, UK owns the history of the rivalry with a 26-14 record against the Cards. U of L, though slipping in two losses against Charlotte and Western Carolina earlier in the season, has been getting it's cohesion as a team back together after struggling with injuries to three key players who are now healthy and contributing. Kentucky, after having close games early in the season, has appeared much more consistent and willing to allow their talent and athleticism to supersede the mistakes of a team which necessarily relies upon much youth. All indications are that this will be another in a series of hard-fought battles between the storied programs.
While Kentucky definitely has superior talent in it's top 5 to 7 players, those players also play more minutes and are relied upon more heavily whereas Louisville plays more guys with more even minutes distribution, therefore having a theoretical advantage in terms of "playing a little deeper" and with better rested players for their transition game and press. UK is better, offensively and on the boards. Louisville is better at creating turnovers and limiting their own. UK has superior interior defense. Louisville has superior perimeter defense. Both are athletic, quick, and deep as teams with Louisville having the experience advantage, starting three Seniors and two Sophomores vs. Kentucky's one Junior, one Sophomore, and three Freshmen.
While it is easy to say that Wall and Patterson for the Cats are clearly the two best players on the floor and also, deservedly, higher rated talents than Samuels and Sosa for the Cards, such a simple assessment does not say anything about the dimensions of either team and how they might play each other. This is not only a rivalry game, but a game between two talented and determined teams with great coaches at the helm of each. Louisville relies upon the talented post play of Sophomore Samardo Samuels who, as anchor, opens up opportunities for the Cards' diverse backcourt options. Samuels, leading the team with an average of 16 points per game, 7.5 rebounds per game, and 54% from the field, is much improved from a spotty Freshman campaign. Although inconsistent, defensively, Samuels's is capable of good mobility and footwork with good hands in a sturdy 6'9" 260 lb. frame. Do the Cards rely too much on him? Perhaps, but if he plays well within Pitino's system and stays out of foul trouble, his influence upon games cannot be underestimated.
Kentucky's DeMarcus Cousins, who is at the very top in the nation in points and rebounds per minute played will be tested by Samuels, yet Big Cuz has shown remarkable improvement on both D and at the line in recent games. His overly discussed "wild emotional side" may still be a factor when it comes to foul trouble, but his offensive game, rebounding, and tenacity cannot be questioned. It would be easy to predict a slight edge to the Cards between Samuels and Cousins due to Samuels's extra year of experience, but Cousins' natural gifts and improvement make this match up, on paper, even.
Sophomore Jared Swopshire, a 6'8" 220 lb. Sophomore starts along side Samuels and though only averaging 8 points per game, he is second on the team in rebounds with 5.5 per game, and has been finding his role better lately. Athletic and fairly strong, Swopshire has a lot of upside and has been playing harder to keep his starting job with the Cards. His defense is even more questionable than Samuels' though and his consistency is a work in progress. Despite Swopshire being the Cards' best free throw shooter at 83%, look for Patrick Patterson, the most consistent, adaptive, physically strong, and controlled forward in the nation to eat this kid alive and spit him out into the lunch box his Mom sent him packing off to school with. No contest.
The Cards' second leading scorer, tallying 13 points per game, is Senior starting point guard Edgar Sosa, who also leads the team in assists with 4 while turning it over twice per game. Sosa, who has shown wild inconsistency from game-to-game and season-to-season throughout his first three years, is clearly the most important guard for the offense of Louisville, hitting 41% from three while leading the Cards in attempts from deep, and is, for better or worse, their floor leader, despite being a "score first" point guard. If he is disrupted or frustrated, the Cards can get into trouble fast. However, he has a lot of help on D from Junior 6th man (5th in minutes) and former Clark Co. star Preston Knowles. When Sosa is on his game and is sharing the ball intelligently, the Cardinals can be very dangerous.
Although many would easily give the advantage to Freshman UK phenom John Wall in this match up of point guards, one cannot underestimate the disparity in experience between he and Sosa, who has seen his share of big games in conference play, NCAA Tourney wars, and the UK/UL rivalry itself. Having said that, no Freshman seems to play beyond his years like Wall and his leadership, despite his tender age, has no doubters by now. Sosa is strong and quick, but Wall is far more athletic and blazing fast, whether in transition or the half court. I believe Sosa has turned a corner this year and is very good, but in every way except experience, John Wall is simply more gifted. It could be a good battle, but look for Wall to have way too much for Sosa to handle, even with Knowles getting his share of tough D minutes against the Big Blue superstar.
Senior Jerry Smith is a tough, strong, and seasoned veteran of Pitino's style of play, having matured into one of the most important defenders on the team. Although his three point shooting has been abysmal this year at 23%, Smith has a history of hitting big shots and can get hot. He is third in scoring at 9 points per game. He is the sort of experienced team leader that Pitino has needed with so much of his best talent gone from last season. Again, we have a Senior, Smith, matching up with a UK Freshman, Eric Bledsoe, who has been recovering from a bum ankle, yet is expected to start and play normal minutes on Saturday.
Bledsoe, a great three point shooter for UK and superior athlete with amazing length and lift, has proven to be unpredictable from game-to-game and half-to-half. He plays hard, has improved his D, but is still very suspect at times when penetrating and passing, having a knack for far more turnovers than assists. Eric does shoot from the field and the line MUCH better than Smith, yet he is still learning "how to lead" wherein Smith has been doing that for a while. Bledsoe is a better player, but odds are that this match up is even at the end of the day.
Louisville's 6' 5" swing wing, Senior Reginald Delk, is the Cards' best three point shooter, hitting 47%, yet he only scores 7 points per game. Delk, an experienced defender and "glue guy" has added another dimension to Louisville's attack and must not be forgotten in the flow of the game. He gives maximum effort and is a good match up for UK's Darius Miller, who flies under the radar on a star-filled Wildcats' squad.
Miller has become one of the best defenders on UK's team and his versatility is unmatched on either side of the ball. He makes very few mistakes, despite legitimate criticism for not being aggressive enough with his offense. Both Miller and Delk have good mid-range games and both shoot well from the outside. Miller, however, is a much better free throw shooter and is an under-appreciated cog in the Big Blue Machine. The edge goes to Miller because of his size advantage and passing ability.
Junior Preston Knowles is really the "sixth starter" and often gets more minutes than those above him. Clearly the Cards' best defender, Knowles can also get hot from deep, is unafraid of contact inside, is strong, fast, and knows no fear. He can get out of control at times, yet the Cards would not do well in the Big East without him. He is, arguably, the Card that stirs the drink in Pitino's system when looking at BOTH offense and defense.
Ramon Harris, UK's Senior defensive stopper and often first man off the bench has been finding more offense in recent games and always seems to get big rebounds while getting any D assignment necessary and usually succeeding in limiting his man. Most importantly, Harris is very key in getting UK's perimeter and overall team defense to click. Knowles is really a point guard that can be like a shooting guard and Harris is really a small forward who can guard four positions so they do not necessarily "match up" in a typical sense. Having said that, I call "the battle of the defensive sixth men" in Knowles' favor due to his more diverse skill set, minutes, and overall importance to the team.
Sophomore Terrence Jennings has been somewhat of a puzzle for Louisville, not living up to his predicted ability thus far, yet he seems to be coming on as of late. His D is pretty good and he has been a serviceable replacement down low for Samuels, but consistency is a major issue. UK's strong and tough Freshman big man Daniel Orton has also been maturing, finding his offense after showing extremely good defensive ability from the moment he put on Kentucky's blue and white. It is because of this defensive maturity and a major strength advantage that Orton gets the nod here.
Sophomore wing Kyle Kuric, Freshman point guard Peyton Siva, and Freshman forward Rakeem Buckles essentially fill out a deep lineup for Louisville. Kuric is tough, Buckles is talented, and Siva is fast, but all are still finding their roles on both sides of the ball right now. Their value is more about allowing the Cards to play deep and keep their starters fresh, yet they can all make a difference in the game. Kentucky counters with the hustling hot shooter Sophomore Darnell Dodson on the wing, Sophomore "point forward" DeAndre Liggins, and Senior swatting power forward Perry Stevenson. The Cats have the experience advantage here, good defenders in Liggins and Stevenson, and instant offense in the form of Dodson, despite significant issues on D for Darnell. The edge here goes to Kentucky easily.
The player match ups are not as meaningful as the overall team style match ups. Both have good athletes, like to push it, promote stifling D in the half and full court, and have a range of options. Both have about 70 more assists than their opponents thus far, but Louisville has about 50 less turnovers than their competition to date whereas Kentucky has 13 MORE turnovers than their opponents. The Cards have 27 more steals on the season than their opponents whereas UK has two less than their opponents. Louisville's experience is the key to these statistical advantages, as is their press.
The question is how well will Kentucky handle the press? UK certainly has the speed, talent and have been playing less sloppy lately, but as a team they must be careful with the ball and recognize the varied looks that the Cards will show them, both individually and together. The alternate question is how will Louisville handle a clearly superior (both offensively and defensively) UK frontline? Defense slight advantage U of L, but with the caveat that if Wall has another high assist, low turnover game, the advantage shifts strongly to UK.
Kentucky has superior size at most every position, good passers inside and out, and as a unit, their frontcourt is easily the more formidable, blocking way more than twice as many shots as Louisville on the year. Kentucky also has a rebounding margin of +12.5 to Louisville's +6.5. UK has sometimes not been ready to defend the three effectively, yet their size and quickness should be enough, with the proper effort and concentration, to give the Cards problems. Louisville does have shooters, but their 32% from three as a team pales in comparison to UK's 42%. UK also holds the advantage of 51% to U of L's 46% in overall team shooting. Overall offense and rebounding advantage UK.
Team free throw shooting stats are virtually even, yet the key players for UK shoot it MUCH better than those from Louisville. Sosa, Smith, and Delk all shoot under 70% from the line. Bledsoe hits 70%, Wall hits 82%, and Miller hits 91%. Now, Knowles and Swopshire are both quite good from the line. Samuels, who takes by far the most free throw shots, is okay at 68%. Despite the season stats not looking great for Patterson, Cousins, and Orton, all three have done MUCH better as the season has developed, with Cousins, the most prolific in attempts, looking particularly good lately. Wall also gets to the line MUCH more than Sosa. That may be the biggest key in the free throw battle. Advantage UK.
The "glamorous" coaching match up I prefer not to dwell on. Both are excellent recruiters and know how to use their talent. Both are experienced and savvy bench coaches who know how to motivate their players. Both understand and preach defense to create offense and want to see efficiency and aggressiveness balance each other in a good game. Calipari vs. Pitino is even.
Rupp Arena is a HUGE advantage for UK, but that could be negated by the Cards' overall advantage in experience at the guard and wing positions. UK does have Patterson, Harris, a mature Sophomore in Miller, and a VERY mature John Wall along with fairly serious and mature young men like Bledsoe, Orton, and Dodson. The crowd wants this one, especially after last year's near miss. Patterson wants this one and Wall and co. KNOW how important this game is for "legacy" reasons. In the battle of home crowd vs. experience, Rupp Arena and the UK fans win, as does Kentucky when the horn sounds at the end of the game.
Kentucky by 14.