ORLANDO, Fla. (WDRB) -- I took a page from the Rick Pitino playbook. No, not from "The One-Day Contract." (Though, coincidentally, it is a good idea for New Year's reading).
No, I got away from the talk and the hype. I came down to Florida. All they're worried about here is the influx of traffic from holiday tourists.
While sitting in traffic in Chattanooga, and Atlanta, and on International Drive, and just about everywhere else, I've been able to get my head straight. Here are my thoughts on that big basketball game up north -- culminating with a pick. 1. THE CASE FOR LOUISVILLE. The Cards, over the past few games, have begun to understand a few things on defense. Their zone has been a bit better. Without Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng, there has been a learning curve. But during the holiday break, with the opportunity to practice outside of the NCAA's 20-hour rule, the Cards have had a chance to work on their defense. They've also had the ability to craft a game plan for Kentucky. With a more experienced team, Rick Pitino has been able to comb through Kentucky and create a very detailed scouting report that his team should, because of that experience, take to heart and execute. The Cardinals are deep at guard and capable of creating great ball pressure, which could play on a Kentucky weakness. Russ Smith is averaging 27 points a game in Rupp Arena and will be trying to prove he's the best player on the court, or at least the best guard. In short, the Cards are more experienced, and appear to be playing better at this point in the season.
2. THE CASE AGAINST KENTUCKY. The Wildcats have played three ranked teams, and lost to all three. They've not buried opponents like Cleveland State and Boise State. While they've overwhelmed inferior front lines, when faced with a team of comparable talent they've lacked the kind of competitive fire and killer instinct to run away. They have been a bit turnover prone, and their guards have not been consistently good enough to beat quality opponents. James Young could disappear. John Calipari doesn't have the luxury of game-planning. He can give his team two or three points, but they're not yet ready to out-execute quality opponents based on observed strengths and weaknesses. They're getting better, but wouldn't appear to have yet put together the kind of effort required to beat a ranked team.
3. THE CASE AGAINST LOUISVILLE. They've played one nationally ranked team. How did that go? They're small. They lack depth in the frontcourt. When faced with a front line comparable in size to Kentucky, they didn't fare well. The starting frontcourt had seven points and 14 fouls. Montrezl Harrell got into quick foul trouble. Wayne Blackshear didn't get a rebound. They're good offensively, but have not consistently contained opponents off the dribble and have not stopped quality frontcourt players inside. They were just outrebounded by Florida International. They don't need to generate huge numbers of steals to win, but when they managed only five steals against North Carolina, they couldn't hold down the Tar Heels' field-goal percentage. Russ Smith is averaging 27 points a game in Rupp Arena and will be trying to prove he's the best player on the court, if not the best guard.
4. THE CASE FOR KENTUCKY. They have an NBA Draft lottery pick at center and another at forward. Willie Cauley-Stein is one of the most disruptive defensive players in the nation because of his ability to block shots. One-on-one, no one has done a good job of stopping Julius Randle (though his tendency to turn it over is a problem). Nobody seems to be able to keep him off the free-throw line. Aaron Harrison (you remember, one of the guards who is "suspect") had 20 points at North Carolina and 23 points, seven assists against Belmont. James Young could show up and be as effective a scorer as there is on the court. Alex Poythress, nobody talks about, but could give UK a big edge at the small forward spot.
5. THE PICK. This is as tough a pick as I can remember in the rivalry. I like Louisville's team, and think Rick Pitino will have them Final Four ready by the end of the season. Kentucky hasn't come close to playing a complete game all season, and plays nowhere near as hard as U of L has played. Las Vegas called it a pick 'em, and the early money now has the Cardinals favored by three. I have one stat. With six minutes left against North Carolina in a game at the Mohegan Sun casino, Louisville trailed by 16. With six minutes left against North Carolina in the Dean Dome, Kentucky trailed by just six. Bottom line? This Kentucky team, young as it is, has played better competition, and has more of a track record. And it is playing at home. To pick against the Wildcats at Rupp Arena, you have to believe it is facing a dominant opponent. I don't think it is. Kentucky has struggled against teams that could match its size at all five positions. Louisville does not. I think Willie Cauley-Stein is the difference maker in this game. I may be wrong, but I've seen both these teams play quite a bit, in person. I saw both play North Carolina, in person. I think UK is one of those match ups that gives Louisville problems. I think both teams will probably play their best games of the season. Had Louisville played one or two more top-30 teams, maybe I'd see this completely differently. Maybe they'll outplay UK and I'll see it Saturday. The game means more to Kentucky. It's in Rupp. I'm going with the Wildcats, 88-81.