LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- Now hours from tipoff of the University of Kentucky-University of Louisville rivalry game, all that's left is to gather up some loose ends, on both sides . . .
CARDS -- Duke deserves its No. 1 ranking, but the Cardinals over the past two weeks have played better than any team in the nation -- a very shaky first half at Memphis notwithstanding. They've been even better at home, particularly offensively. The Cardinals are averaging 81 points per game in the KFC Yum! Center, while giving up 52 per contest.
CATS -- UK being unranked in the Associated Press poll borders on the ridiculous. The Wildcats' resume isn't sparkling, but its loss to Duke was respectable -- particularly given it was the second game of the season and played without its starting point guard -- and Notre Dame is one of the more difficult road venues in the country. Regardless, the net effect of those losses has been what would seem to be a widespread underestimation of the Wildcats, who do possess a roster of future NBA players, raw though it may be.
CARDS -- The guy maybe least talked about this week is one with perhaps the most to prove in this game. Chane Behanan still isn't where Rick Pitino wants him to be, but a big game against UK could push him back into the spotlight he enjoyed after helping to lead the University of Louisville to the Final Four last season. Behanan had 14 points, 7 rebounds in U of L's Final Four loss to UK in April.
CATS -- While point guard Ryan Harrow is being praised for taking care of the ball during is recent emergence, some caution is necessary. A look at UK's past four opponents shows that they have been among the worst in the nation in forcing turnovers or grabbing steals. Portland ranks 305th (out of 345) in NCAA Division I in steals. Lipscomb ranks No. 337 in turnover margin and Marshall No. 293. Samford was the highest ranked team in any category, ranking 258th in steals. U of L ranks first in the nation in turnover margin, and second in steals. One more note along these lines: According to Ken Pomeroy, UK has played teams with collective defensive efficiency rank of No. 305 nationally. U of L's defensive rank is No. 1.
CARDS -- Russ Smith has scored at least 13 points in every game this season. But when Rick Pitino warned him that if he drove straight at Nerlens Noel he was going to get his shot blocked, Smith asked Pitino to rephrase his coaching. "Don't tell me he's going to block my shot, tell me I need to dish it," U of L coach Rick Pitino said Smith told him. "I need to be in the right frame of mind." Smith being right is as crucial to the Cards as anything -- he ranks No. 3 in the nation in percentage of possessions used, according to Pomeroy, and No. 9 in percentage of his team's shots taken.
CATS -- A positive for UK entering the U of L game: This Wildcat team is averaging more assists than any of its Calipari predecessors. In a game where passing may be at a premium against U of L pressure, UK is averaging 16.6 assists per game. Last year's national championship team averaged 14.9. The Wildcats are shooting 49.8 percent from the field.
CARDS -- Often the primary focus of UK's defense over the past four meetings, U of L point guard Peyton Siva will demand attention again today. Over the past eight games, Siva has averaged 13.4 points, six assists and 2.3 steals, while shooting 49.3 percent from the field and is 13 of 29 from three-point range (44.8 percent).
CATS -- The Wildcats have shot 44.1 percent outside Rupp Arena this season, 61.5 percent at home.
CARDS -- The only team to outscore U of L in points off turnovers (Duke, 16-14), beat the Cardinals.
CATS -- Overlooked element of UK strength this season: The Wildcat defense ranks No. 8 nationally in Ken Pomeroy's statistical calculations. For a U of L team given to offensive droughts in the past, it's worth considering. UK will be the highest-rated defensive team the Cardinals have faced this season.
HOW THE CATS CAN WIN -- UK's road to victory begins with being strong with the basketball, not turning it over, and not backing down from a U of L defense that is likely to be more physical than any the Wildcats have faced this season. They'll need big games from Alex Poythress, who is capable of putting up big scoring numbers with high-percentage looks around the rim, and from Kyle Wiltjer, who is the one player most capable of changing the course of the game from three-point range. Defensively, UK would use its length to shut down U of L's points in the paint, cut off the Cardinals points off turnovers, and keep the Cards out of their full-court pressure by forcing a low shooting percentage.
HOW THE CARDS CAN WIN -- U of L's road to victory begins with heating up the UK backcourt with defensive pressure, leading to points off the break and trying to rattle UK's young players in a way similar to their experience in South Bend during a loss to Notre Dame. Offensively, the Cards have had success driving to the basket against everyone, but UK poses a greater shot-blocking threat than they have faced. So Peyton Siva and Russ Smith will have to look to draw shot blockers to them to commit, then dish to interior players for easy layups, as Duke executed extremely well in its meeting with UK. U of L will need a big game from Wayne Blackshear, and will score at least a dozen points off midrange jumpers. An X-factor player? Kevin Ware off the bench. He's quietly improved in each of the past four games, and his athleticism gives U of L an edge in depth, which could be a bigger factor with foul trouble than fatigue.
CALLING THE ACTION -- The CBS broadcast team for today's nationally televised game is Tim Brando, Clark Kellogg and Greg Anthony.
CALLING THE GAME -- The refs are Ed Corbett, John Cahill and Doug Shows.
DRAWING THE FOULS -- Alex Poythress has been the most effective UK player at drawing fouls, picking up 6.9 opponent fouls per 40 minutes played (34th in the nation). For U of L, the man at the line has been Russ Smith. He draws 6.8 fouls per 40 minutes.
OBSCURE STAT COMPARISON -- U of L's bench is playing 35.9 percent of its minutes (ranking 76th nationally). UK's is playing 24.6 percent (ranking No. 307 in the nation). UK, according to Pomeroy, is officially the least experienced team in the nation, with a roster average of 0.85 years. No surprise. U of L ranks No. 218 in experience, with an average of 1.58 years.
A RARITY -- U of L has played as many games away from home (6) as it has at the KFC Yum! Center (6) so far this season.
FINALLY, FREE THROWS -- From the line, UK has struggled, shooting just 64.7 percent on the season (and 63.5 percent away from Rupp Arena). U of L is shooting 69.8 percent from the line. But get this. The Cards are shooting only 63 PERCENT from the line in home games (80 of 127). Away from home, they've shot 76 percent (105-138).
THE PICK -- UK absolutely can win the game, but there is no reason U of L should lose it. The Cardinals are the deeper, more experienced team. They may not have the quality of three first-round draft picks (at least), but they have more weapons in number. I expect Wayne Blackshear to be a difference-maker, the return of Gorgui Dieng to help, and U of L's pressure to be a factor over the entire course of the game. I think it will be tight throughout, with U of L pulling away late to win 78-68.