CRAWFORD | Five things I believe about Saturday's Louisville-Kentucky matchup
Eric Crawford has five thoughts on Saturday's rivalry meeting between the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville in Rupp Arena.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — I’ve reconfigured my thoughts on this year’s Louisville-Kentucky basketball game more times than my sons have reloaded their Nerf gun magazines this afternoon.
I was hoping for help from Las Vegas, but the oddsmakers basically punted, opening with Kentucky a 2 1/2-point favorite.
On top of it, I guess I’m getting too old. I used to have no problem shifting gears. Football to basketball. Sport to sport. Christmas to bowl games.
Sitting down here in the basement on Christmas night trying to get motivated on this rivalry — and don’t get me wrong, it’s a fascinating game — is not easy. Someone posted on my Facebook page earlier, “Make sure to post something on the game later so we can talk some trash tonight.”
Folks, your passion for sports keeps me in business. But if you’ve got nothing better to do that talk rivalry trash on Christmas night, then I worry about you.
Also, I thank God for you. So don’t feel unappreciated!
Anyway, here’s the best I can tell you about this game. I saw a big banner with the word, “Believe” on a church as I drove home last night, so that’s going to be my theme for this.
Five things I believe about Saturday’s game:
1. THE MOST IMPORTANT PIECE OF INFORMATION I CAN HAVE RIGHT NOW IS THE STATUS OF TYLER ULIS’ ELBOW. To me, this is the big question in the game. Is he 100 percent? If he’s right, Kentucky is a different team. If he’s right, you can’t press them, unless your hope is to wear them down, but that’s a big gamble, because you could be down 20 or more by the time they get tired.
The problem for Kentucky is that Ulis hasn’t been right since getting hurt against UCLA. He’s not the perimeter threat he has been, which means teams have been able to hedge off a little bit, making his drives more difficult and less effective.
Ulis may have benefitted from the short break in the action more than anyone. But we won’t know that until game time.
When asked on Wednesday night whether Ulis is back healthy, UK coach John Calipari said, “I don’t believe so. I think he’s not one that’s going to worry about that. It’s like anything else: You have to adjust a little bit to how you’re playing and what you’re doing. I would tell you again, I think the guards are playing too many minutes, so we have to figure out ways of cutting their minutes down.”
I’m not sure what that really means. I am sure that UK is a different team with Ulis at 100 percent.
2. LOUISVILLE NEEDS TO ZONE, BUT ZONE ISN’T ITS BEST LOOK RIGHT NOW. Most games, I would tell you that the sagging, switching man-to-man Louisville has used quite a bit this season is the way to go, and it might well be the way to go against Kentucky.
But when you look at a team whose three-point percentage is .297, the usual match-up zone that Louisville plays seems made to order to face this Kentucky team.
Except that Louisville’s zone isn’t what it has been. And in fact, it’s probably not even as good as it was earlier this season, given the loss of Mangok Mathiang, who had significant experience in the zone.
Louisville’s four-men replacing Mathiang all have more upside, especially Ray Spalding. But none of them are completely comfortable in the zone, nor are newcomers Trey Lewis and Damion Lee.
Pitino, almost surely, will have to try the zone. He’s worried about his team’s defense, period. No doubt, the Cardinals got a steady dose of defensive drilling along with their gifts and Christmas dinner, in two practices on Christmas Eve and another on Christmas Day.
“I know offensively we'll be ready,” Pitino said Wednesday. “We just have to really shore up our defense. “. . . Defensively, we're not where we need to be. I wouldn't expect it with all these new players and four starters gone. I wouldn't expect it. But we'll get there. We're going to have to get there right away.”
3. THIS COULD BE THE BLOW-BY BOWL. Kentucky hasn’t been a great defensive team, either. It doesn’t seem to have the sure-fire rim protector that it has had in years past. And they’ve been susceptible to teams with the ability to get into the paint.
Louisville has that ability. There are a lot of guards in this game with offensive mentalities, and the team that wins could be the team that limits the number of blow-bys, or opposing guards just beating them off the dribble into the paint.
Pitino has been so aggravated with it that he created a special category on his team’s MVP chart.
The problem with that happening is that it puts your big men into help position, and exposes them to foul trouble. UK has experienced that in its losses. And Louisville has experienced it, too.
“When you keep forcing your bigs to rotate you get out of rebounding position and you foul,” Pitino said. “, , , Kentucky's a dribble drive team that gets people in foul trouble. So, we're going to need a deep bench in this game.”
In something of a switch, we might see Kentucky do as much pressing in this game as Louisville does, if not more. That’s a call Calipari will have to make. And how will Louisville handle it if Kentucky does?
“We’re a fast, guard-oriented and a great driving team,” Calipari said. “We put pressure on the ball as well as any other team in the country. We’re a good pressing team. It’s just, ‘Ok. What do we need to do offensively?’ Are people sagging? Are people playing zone? How are we doing this? That’s the kind of tweaking I’m talking about more than anything else.”
Those aren’t exactly comforting words two days before Christmas.
4. THIS GAME TRULY IS THE UNITED NATIONS OF COLLEGE BASKETBALL. Both teams have laid claim to that title over the past year, but take a look. Kentucky has Skal Labissiere from Haiti and Jamal Murray from Canada in the starting lineup. Louisville has Anas Mahmoud (Egypt) and Matz Stockman (Norway) seeing playing time inside, with Deng Adel (born in Sudan, raised in Australia). Mathiang gives them another foreign-born player, though he won’t play in this one. UK has Isaac Humphries (Australia), Mychal Mulder (Canada) and Tai Wynyard (New Zealand) available.
If you ask me, that’s kind of cool. It gives a home-state rivalry an international feel.
5. HOME COURT WILL COUNT FOR SOMETHING. Look, I feel like Louisville is playing better basketball right now, lesser competition notwithstanding. The Cardinals have more depth to absorb interior fouls and have been more reliable from three-point range — against a UK team that hasn’t always locked down opposing shooters.
The computer ratings like the Cardinals. UK is still searching for its identity on both ends of the court, and has struggled to shoot from the perimeter.
Having said all that, Kentucky has won 27 straight non-conference games in a row at home. And generally, coming off a loss, has not been a program to sit around and sulk under John Calipari. The last time UK played a nationally ranked opponent, it played its most impressive game of the season in dispatching Duke.
Strange as it may sound, I believe Louisville’s defense is better than Duke’s, and that alone bodes well for the Cardinals’ season.
But for me to pick Louisville to win in Rupp Arena, I would need to see them prove that they could close out a win in an environment like that.
I believe Louisville will come into Rupp and play a good game. I believe it can handle the hoopla and that it has the talent to hang with Kentucky, and perhaps lead the game for a good bit.
I don’t know yet whether it has learned to win these difficult road games. And I feel Kentucky, in some ways, might be the hungrier team right now. Louisville has done nothing but climb in the rankings. Kentucky has stumbled around and struggled. Be wary of a team with the talent Kentucky has in need of a win.
Vegas has Kentucky by 2 1/2. I have Kentucky 74-71 in a game in which both teams will have offensive success.
I feel like this game is a movie we’ve seen before. But I also feel like we’re going to be watching what could be two of the better teams in the country by season’s end.
It should be fun.
Merry Christmas, to the red and the blue.
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