Well on Friday the 31st the University of Kentucky will travel down the highway to take on in-state rival, Louisville Cardinals in a match-up of two very similar teams with two very similar coaches. Both teams will enter the game playing and shooting very well, especially over their last two outings. The Cards have put up over 200 total points in their last two outings while the Cats have been right around 185 or so in their last two outings. The Cards have just one loss and the Cats two entering the game and yet both teams still have at least one major issue to answer before they hit conference play. The game will mean a lot to both teams, not just for bragging rights or an edge in recruiting but also as a positive and quality win as they head toward the New Year. The win may mean a lot more to the Cats as they have seen the rest of their conference (excluding Vandy and Georgia) suffer a rash of “bad” non-conference losses which will almost assuredly affect the SEC’s RPI as a whole. Meanwhile the Cards have the blessed but cursed luck of being in arguably the second toughest conference this season, the Big East; so a win over the Cats would be more like an appetizer as Pitino’s club will look to get even more quality wins once conference play starts. Tomorrow’s match-up will hinge on several key factors and as always, the club that executes their game-plan the best and makes the least mistakes will be the winner.
The Wildcats come in to this match-up as they did last season, sporting at least 3 freshmen that will see major minutes and that will be very key if UK plans on emerging from the Yum Brand Center with a “W”. The highly touted Brandon Knight has been very good through the first third of his freshman year for John Calipari. While Knight may not be the pure PG that John Wall was, he is an athletic lead guard that will not be short-changed when he has a chance to score. While Knight may only dish out about 3.5 assist per game he is second on the team in scoring and if not for Terrence Jones dropping a couple of 30 pt games in, Knight very well could be leading the team in scoring. Speaking of Jones, yet another freshman that has seem to shed a rather “discernible image” that dogged him out of high school and now he exudes nothing but hard work and good effort under Coach Cal.
Some questioned Jones’ work ethic and focus as he entered this season but if nothing else, Jones has been nothing short of magnificent, even if he tends to float outside the post a little too much at times. He has been a double-double machine and why he may not project the “kiddie like” but fearsome image Demarcus Cousins did, Jones has been very Cousin’s like on the hardwood.
The other heralded freshman, Doron Lamb may be finding his niche as a “super sixth” man coming off the bench for this squad. Lamb is coming off a game last week in which he drained 7 “3-pointers” in showing the type of shooting touch that had Calipari drooling when he recruited this kid. While Lamb has struggled at times when it seems as though he has been asked to be a PG, there is no denying that he has nice stroke from outside and that is something that can help UK make a run deep in March. The thing that helps these three youngsters is the steadying force that three veterans like Darius Miller, Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins bring to the table on their roles on the club. Miller’s job is make open shots when he has them and then create shots when the jumper is not working. For Harrelson is all about rebounding and providing a defensive presence in the lane.
But don’t forget about Harrellson because the big fella can put the ball in the hoop if need be. Last but not least, Liggins is simply a “jack-of-all trades” for the Cats but his main presence can be felt on defense and the energy he provides when he is on the court. Liggins is athletically gifted and arrived in Lexington with a scorer’s mentality. However, with the arrival of Coach Cal and his “dribble-drive” offense, Liggins has come to grasp with his role on the squad and is making the most out of his opportunity.
For the Cardinals this season was looked at as somewhat of a re-tooling year but the Cards have progressed a little faster than most thought they wood. With last season’s distractions behind them (Pitino’s infidelity issues) this season squad seems a lot more focused as does its coach on the task at hand…..being a force in the Big East and a spoiler in March. The key to the Cardinals is tempo, both offensively and defensively. The Cards would like to push the ball up and down and shoot at least 15 – 20 threes per game. On defense, they would like to pressure you ‘94 feet’ if possible and create at least 15 turnovers out of the opposition. Turnovers generally lead to fast break opportunities / points and that can go a long way when you are looking to average 80+ points per game.
The man charged with leading this locomotive on the court is 2nd year PG Peyton Siva; Siva was listed as no worse than the 3rd or 4th best PG prospect coming out high school behind John Wall. Siva spent most of last season getting acclimated to Pitino’s style and the offense in general; this season he has been very good in showing the skills he was recruited for but for some odd reason, he is averaging less than 25 min player per game. Siva must be on the court and productive if the Cards are going to send the Cats home with and “L”. Another key “cog” for U of L is the defensive ability of senior Preston Knowles. He will have to be intense but play within himself on the defensive end because he cannot afford to pick-up cheap fouls because he is overly charged. The Cards will also need Knowles and his streaking shooting to be red-hot in tomorrow’s match-up. He is the other person outside of Siva that typically can get his own shot without the use of a pick / screen.
The X-factor for the Cards would have been their forward, Rakeem Buckles because he may be the one player who can match-up with Jones. Buckles can be effective if he makes Jones work on the defensive end because that will cause Jones to expend some energy and maybe even lead him to pick up a foul or two. But, we won’t have to worry about Buckles as he broke his finger in practice and will not play.
Thus, Terrence Jennings will need to play big inside as well as he is slight of frame but he has length that could bother UK players as they drive to the hoop. The battle on the glass will definitely favor the aggressor but yet smart player on Friday because the ref’s will be looking to keep things from getting to “chippy” in the paint early.
This rivalry doesn’t necessarily draw the same hype nationally as Duke – UNC, Georgetown – Syracuse or Ohio St. – Michigan St., mainly because UK and U of L are in two different conferences, therefore they only play one time a year. But in the Bluegrass state, the rivalry is huge and the quest to win is even bigger. The victor will be a leg up when it comes to in-state recruits or recruits that live in bordering states. Then of course there is simply bragging rights for another year for the winner. But this one may have a little something extra…….the Cards have opened a brand new arena and they don’t want their first meeting with the hated Cats to be a losing one.
For UK, the talk for years has been about trying to get an on-campus arena and getting out of Rupp Arena. Well if you don’t think that when the UK fans walk into Yum Brand Arena and see and feel the excitement and the electricity in the air. The Cards closed Freedom Hall last year with a big win and you gotta believe they want to do the same here, even though they have already played several home games this season. Kentucky players and fans would love nothing better than to take the old-year out by taking out the Cardinals in their brand new home.
Intensity, intensity, intensity……..give me the Cards in a 77-72 gut-wrench-er if Siva plays big. If Siva struggles or only gets less than 25 minutes of “PT”, give me the Cats pulling away late 83-75.