Louisville aims to shock bitter rival Kentucky, but reality is not on its side at the Final Four
That is the conventional wisdom, and it’s a well-attended convention. The Wildcats are ranked No. 1, 36-2, loaded with NBA talent and treating the NCAA tournament field like the Globetrotters treated the Washington Generals. The Cardinals have lost nine times this season – including a solid New Year’s Eve defeat at Kentucky – have maybe one player who could start for UK, and have survived two near-death experiences earlier in this tournament.
The efficiency geeks love the Wildcats. The basketball experts love the Wildcats. If James Naismith came back to life, he’d love what the Wildcats have done with his little invention.
You can come up with 100 reasons why Kentucky will emerge from Bluegrass Armageddon victorious. That’s the easy way out. Or you can come up with 10 reasons why Louisville will pull the biggest Final Four shocker since Duke upset UNLV in 1991. That’s the job here.
1. Louisvillle is the more seasoned team.
The Cardinals’ schedule is ranked ninth in the nation by Jeff Sagarin and fifth by Ken Pomeroy. The Big East is the ultimate crucible, a place where even mid-pack teams emerge as dangerous opponents in March.
Louisville was just such a mid-pack team, finishing seventh in the league before catching fire and winning the conference tournament. It is now the third consecutive Big East tourney champion to make the Final Four. Perhaps not coincidentally, the previous two – West Virginia in 2010 and Connecticut in 2011 – eliminated John Calipari-coached Kentucky teams.
The 2009 Big East tourney champ (Louisville) advanced to the final eight. The ’07 champ (Georgetown) made the Final Four. In the last six years, only ’08 champ Pittsburgh failed to win at least three NCAA tourney games.
Kentucky’s schedule is ranked 35th by Sagarin, 31st by Pomeroy. The Wildcats have yet to face a team seeded higher than third in this tourney. (If they make the final, they’ll be the first team to get that far without beating someone seeded first or second since both Illinois and North Carolina did it in 2005.) While the Southeastern Conference had a couple of worthy opponents in Florida and Vanderbilt, there wasn’t much depth after that. Since that New Year’s Eve game against Louisville, the Wildcats have played a lot of overmatched opponents.
Why did Duke beat UNLV in ’91? In part because the Blue Devils had been hardened by the ACC while the Runnin’ Rebels had coasted through a weak Big West Conference. The SEC is tougher than the Big West – but not as tough as the Big East.
Reality check: Conference affiliation didn’t save Duke from being beaten into an unrecognizable pulp the previous year in the championship game, 103-73, by the Big West’s UNLV Rebels. Sometimes a team is so good it doesn’t matter what league it came through to win the title.
2. Kentucky has feasted on bad defenses.
Everyone has rhapsodized about the Wildcats’ offensive beauty and production this NCAA tournament, and with good reason. They’ve been a joy to watch. But it’s been a while since they played someone who can make life truly difficult at that end of the floor.
Using Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, the Wildcats have not faced a defense ranked higher than 30th since Alabama on Jan. 21. That’s a span of 18 games. Average defensive ranking of the four teams UK has blitzed in this tourney: 71st.
Louisville is No. 1 in Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency ratings. The Cardinals allow opponents to make just 42 percent of their two-point shots (third-best in the nation) and 30.3 percent of their 3-point shots (18th in the nation). And yes, the Cards have faced some quality offenses lately: Florida is the No. 3 offense in Pomeroy’s ratings, Michigan State is No. 14 and Syracuse is No. 6.
What happens to UK if the open shots aren’t there, or the paths to the basket are closed? After running a layup line on Baylor, Indiana, Iowa State and Western Kentucky, do the Cats remember how to win a grinder against a team that makes them work for their points?
Reality check: Kentucky has won plenty of grinders this year, including one Dec. 31 against Louisville. The Cats shot 30 percent from the field in that game and still led for the final 14 minutes and 56 seconds.
3. Rick Pitino has a week.
The longer the coach of the Cardinals has to pore over video, detect opponent weaknesses and prepare for an NCAA tournament game, the tougher he is to beat. He’s 13-4 in round-of-64 games and a dazzling 10-0 in Sweet 16 games. He’s only 2-3 in national semifinals, but in both 1987 with Providence and ’05 with Louisville he was a major underdog.
Reality check: He’s a major underdog this time, too.
4. Louisville learned from its Dec. 31 test run against Kentucky.
Earlier this week the Cardinals said video study of the Wildcats did not prepare them for UK’s real-life length and quickness. Having seen it on the court, they should have a better idea what can and can’t work against the wingspan of Anthony Davis and the board crashing of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, among others.
Reality check: Six SEC teams got a second shot at Kentucky. None of them won, and four of them lost worse the second time than the first (exceptions: LSU and Florida). The only SEC team to beat UK was Vanderbilt, and it took a third meeting for that to happen.
5. Chane Behanan will play more.
Louisville’s impressive freshman power forward only played 15 minutes in Lexington after picking up three fouls early in the game – two personal fouls plus a technical. He eventually fouled out with just four points and five rebounds.
In the NCAA tourney, Behanan is averaging 14 points and 7.8 rebounds and was Mr. Clutch in the comeback victory over Florida in the regional final. If he can approximate those numbers Saturday it would help offset the 21-rebound wipeout on the glass from the previous meeting, and the Cardinals should have a good chance.
Reality check: If Louisville is expecting more out of Behanan, you can bet Kentucky is expecting more than it got in the first game from, say, Darius Miller (seven points, eight turnovers). That goes both ways.
6. Peyton Siva will play better.
Louisville’s charismatic point guard has been the team bellwether all season. When he plays well – distributing the ball and occasionally making shots to keep the defense honest – the Cardinals play well. When he plays poorly – committing stupid fouls and turnovers – the Cardinals struggle.
In the postseason Siva is averaging 11.4 points and 6.4 assists. The lights have come on and he’s rediscovered how to pull the strings on Louisville’s high-ball-screen attack.
Reality check: Siva hasn’t seen the defensive size he will see Saturday, when 6-foot-7 Kidd-Gilchrist will probably spend a lot of time guarding him again as he did in Rupp Arena. Siva missed a season-high 11 shots that game, going 2-for-13.
7. Gorgui Dieng will make scoring difficult inside for Kentucky.
The Wildcats have had a devastating altitude game, throwing the ball over the top of opponents for demoralizing dunks. With the 6-11 Dieng manning the middle of the Cardinals’ zone, those momentum-building plays are much harder to come by.
Dieng blocked six Kentucky shots in the first meeting and blocked seven against Michigan State in the Sweet 16. The more Louisville forces Kentucky to beat it from the perimeter, the better its chances. (Caveat: the Cardinals cannot leave Doron Lamb or Miller open outside the arc. Ever.)
Reality check: Not leaving Lamb or Miller open is a lot easier said than done. Especially when teams are obsessing with stopping UK’s penetration and alley-oops. And Dieng is also foul prone. Get him in foul trouble and Louisville has no chance. Zero.
8. Marquis Teague is the weak link Louisville can exploit.
The point guard who almost chose the Cards before committing to the Cats was pretty lousy in the first meeting: 1-for-8 from the field, four points, five assists, four turnovers, fouled out. Of all the Kentucky players, he’s had the biggest free pass offensively in the NCAAs – none of the Wildcats’ four victims to this point can pressure the ball the way Louisville can.
With Siva, Russ Smith and Chris Smith in his face and digging for the ball constantly, Teague might revert to the overheated, turnover-prone, bad-shot-taking freshman he was for the first two months of the year. If anyone can be invited to shoot from the perimeter, it’s a guy who has made just 2-of-10 shots outside the arc in the postseason. And if anyone can be attacked defensively, it’s Teague.
Reality check: Waiting for Teague to blow a game hasn’t worked very well this year. Kentucky has only lost twice, and only in one of those games (Vanderbilt) has he played 40 poor minutes offensively. (He went 0-for-7.) His play over the second half of the season has been very solid.
9. This is not Rupp Arena.
I was in Rupp on Dec. 31, and the atmosphere was feral – as it is whenever Kentucky and Louisville meet. It appeared to take Behanan out of his game and bothered the rest of the Cardinals. That happens. UK hasn’t lost at home for three years under John Calipari, and a large part of that is the intimidation factor of 24,000 screaming maniacs.
There was a moment in the New Year’s Eve game where Louisville tied the score at 40, and had three possessions to take the lead. With the Rupp crowd going berserk, the Cardinals couldn’t score and Kentucky pulled away. If that same moment happens again, here, maybe Louisville takes the lead and applies some game pressure to a team that has felt very little in the past two weeks.
Kentucky probably will have the most fans in the Louisiana Superdome Saturday, but it won’t be anything like the home-court advantage in Rupp. Louisville will bring a ton of fans to the proceedings, and the Kansas and Ohio State contingents will be die-hard Cardinals backers for a night.
Reality check: So the crowd will be neutralized. All things being equal, more or less, Kentucky still has the best players by a long shot.
10. Kentucky will feel the pressure.
Calipari can get uptight – if you’ve seen some of his sideline hysterics, you know that’s the case. How uptight will he be Saturday, in a must-win game as a heavy favorite against his most hated rival coach? Will he transmit that tension to his team? If the game is close and mighty Kentucky is seriously challenged, how do the Cats respond? If they’re behind in the second half, what happens?
Pitino knows a thing or two about getting an underdog to play without pressure in a huge setting. Flash back 20 years to Duke-Kentucky in the Spectrum. Those players had nothing to lose and played the game of their lives. Maybe this group will do the same.
Final score: Louisville 69, Kentucky 68.
Reality check: There’s no denying that Kentucky will feel more pressure Saturday. There’s also no denying that that’s been the case every game during this NCAA tourney, and the Cats have answered every tense moment with ruthless brilliance. Real pressure is knowing you’re not as good as the other team and can’t afford to make mistakes – and that pressure is squarely on Louisville.
Final score: Kentucky 81, Louisville 74.
Other popular content on the Yahoo! network:
• Final Four coaches break the bank with performance bonuses
• Jamie Moyer’s Rockies comeback at 49 certifies him as ‘freak’ worth savoring
• Dan Wetzel: Should Augusta National purposely not invite a woman?
• Y! News: Nike sues Reebok over Tim Tebow apparel | Most marketable?