KENTUCKY VS. LOUISVILLE
Matchup: It's an intra-state rivalry game on this side of the Final Four, as the Bluegrass State gets a repeat of its annual grudge match under the bright lights of the Bayou. Kentucky took the first contest, 69-62, on New Year's Eve behind 24 points and 19 rebounds from Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. This time around, Louisville coach Rick Pitino will be sure to make note of the freshman's determination and athleticism.
Of course, it wouldn't be right to fail to mention that Rick Pitino used to coach the Wildcats, and perhaps could have gone down in Kentucky lore with the likes of Adolph Rupp if not for the yearning for the big bucks of the NBA. After Larry Bird did not walk through that door in Boston, Pitino made his way back to the state of Kentucky, but instead took the reins of the Cardinals. Certainly, he would love nothing more than to knock off his former squad.
With many more story lines permeating this brotherly matchup, let's look at what each squad has to offer for this rematch in New Orleans.
Kentucky Wildcats, South Region No. 1 seed
Backcourt: After looking a bit lost at the beginning of the season, point guard Marquis Teague has really hit his stride. He has limited turnovers, found open teammates and gotten his own share of points with drives to the bucket. Doron Lamb is a pure shooter who can really stroke it from the outside, hitting a blistering 47.1 percent of his treys this year. Even though he's only a sophomore, Lamb has been to the Final Four and provides underrated leadership. Once considered a weakness for the Wildcats, the backcourt is now viewed as steady and unflappable.
Frontcourt: Kentucky has arguably the best frontcourt in the nation, with surefire NBA lottery picks in freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, along with sophomore sensation Terrence Jones. Davis is a defensive machine, averaging 4.6 rejections per game and altering countless more shots near the rim. He's no slouch on the offensive end either, with the ability to throw down alley-oops and even step outside and hit the occasional jumper. Kidd-Gilchrist is relentless, the type of player you simply love having on your squad. He attacks the hoop with reckless abandon. Although Terrence Jones has been chided for his effort and selfishness, there have been no such comments during this year's tourney. All in all, the Wildcats have a sensational front line that has wreaked havoc on college basketball all season.
X-Factor: Darius Miller. Coach John Calipari has an extremely short rotation, as Miller is pretty much the only player getting significant minutes off the bench. A starter on last year's Final Four team, Miller agreed to take a backseat to the incoming freshman, yet has remained a vital part of UK's success. Miller is a versatile player who can stuff the stat sheet, as well as guard a number of positions on the defensive end. If any of Kentucky's starters get into foul trouble, it's usually Darius Miller to the rescue. With Anthony Davis limited due to foul trouble and injury in the Elite Eight against Baylor, Miller notched 35 minutes in the 82-70 victory over the Bears. Miller is the squad's unsung hero and should get more pub because he does whatever necessary to win.
Who They Beat to Get Here:
Western Kentucky, 81-66
Iowa State, 87-71
They'll Win If: the Wildcats stay out of foul trouble. Kentucky is not a deep squad. Kyle Wiltjer occasionally sees some action as the seventh man, but only sparingly. As a result, the Wildcats are vulnerable to foul trouble. Certainly they have the talent to overcome these deficiencies, but against a slashing squad led by Peyton Siva, this could develop into an issue if the Wildcats aren't careful. Expect the Cardinals to attack the Wildcats inside. Although easier said than done, quick fouls on Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones could vastly change the landscape of this game.
Louisville Cardinals, West Region No. 4 seed
Backcourt: Peyton Siva is the catalyst for the Cardinals offense. When under control, he is among the elite slashers in the game, whether to get his own acrobatic shot or find shooters for open treys. He has battled turnovers and inconsistency throughout his career but remains ultra-dangerous with the ball in his hands. Chris Smith, the younger brother of Knicks swingman J.R. Smith, is a dependable sidekick who plays bigger than his 6-foot-2, 195, frame.
Frontcourt: Gorgui Deng has been a difference-maker for the Cardinals, providing a shot-blocking and rebounding presence on the interior. Meanwhile, perhaps the best player on the court for the Cardinals in their comeback triumph over Florida was Chane Behanan. The 6-6, 250, freshman is a load in the post, with the ability to bull his way through opponents and get his own shot. He managed 17 points and seven rebounds in that last game with 15 points and nine boards in the Sweet 16 victory over Michigan State. Kyle Kuric rounds out the frontcourt as a deadly, yet struggling three-point shooter. The leading scorer this year for the Cardinals, Kuric is hitting just 32.8 percent of his attempts from long range.
X-Factor: Russ Smith. Smith has been on fire during the tournament, scoring double digits in each of his last three games. The sophomore even led the Cardinals with 19 points against Florida, taking over the offense after Peyton Siva fouled out with nearly four minutes remaining. It is also worth noting that Smith poured in 30 points in the 69-62 loss to Kentucky on New Year's Eve - nearly half of the 62-point total for Louisville. Smith can really fill it up, and his instant offense off the bench in relief of Siva will be extremely important if the Cardinals are to keep pace with the high-flying Wildcats.
Who They Beat to Get Here:
New Mexico, 59-56
Michigan State, 57-44
They'll Win If: the Cardinals can slow the game down and play at their tempo. It's an almost impossible task with the athleticism of the Wildcats; the Cardinals have not scored more than 72 points in any tournament game - and even that required a furious comeback against the Gators. In fact, the Cardinals were largely outplayed in that contest, slowing the high-octane Gators with a second-half switch to man-to-man defense but still not pulling ahead until the very end. Meanwhile, Kentucky's lowest single-game total is 81 points in its victory over Western Kentucky, and clearly the Wildcats took their foot off the gas near the end of that game as well. In other words, the Cardinals must find a way to use the shot clock, minimize Kentucky's possessions and avoid costly turnovers that lead to fast-break points and easy buckets.
There's simply too much talent on the Kentucky side of this equation. Although coach Pitino will no doubt draw up a masterful plan to take down the mighty Wildcats, no amount of pressing or defensive scheming can prepare the Cardinals for this type of onslaught. Kentucky can win in so many ways; blocked shots, dunks, second-chance buckets, three-pointers. It'll be closer than expected, but the Wildcats gut it out en route to the championship game.