The NCAA Tournament Committee got it right when they put Louisville and Kentucky on the same side of the bracket. Whether by sheer luck or a contrived matchup in case No. 1 seed Wichita State lost, arch rivals Louisville and Kentucky will meet Friday night in the most compelling game in the round of the Sweet Sixteen. Louisville is the No.4 seed and Kentucky the No. 8 seed of Midwest Region play in Indianapolis, IN.
There are plenty of story lines as the two schools meet for the first time in postseason play since the Final Four of the 2012 NCAA Tournament. Kentucky won that game and went on to win the NCAA championship while Louisville won the title last year. Cardinal coach Rick Pitino is trying to guide his team to their second straight NCAA championship and third straight Final Four appearance. If Louisville does win the next two and make the Final Four, Pitino becomes just the ninth coach in NCAA history to accomplish the feat. Kentucky Coach John Calipari will be trying to take his team second NCAA title in the last three years and third Final Four appearance in the last four seasons.
These are the creme de la creme of college basketball at the moment. For all the greatness of Duke, North Carolina and other programs, no two schools are playing at the caliber of these two bluegrass and blue blood programs. The game shines even brighter given their rivalry and the mutual dislike between the two head coaches. Louisville and Kentucky meet only once a season in non-conference play, but the game reigns as one of the must see contests every year on the NCAA regular season calendar that has become increasingly irrelevant.
Kentucky won that game 73-66 back in December, and though each team is in a different place than it was then, there is still much to take from that game. Louisville struggled somewhat coming out of the gate this season but now have won 14 of their last 15 games and have been one of the best teams in the country for some time now. They are led by seniors Russ Smith, who averaged 14.5 ppg and 5.0 assists per game and Luke Hancock who put up 18.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg and 3.5 apg. Though the Cardinals have peaked at the right time, Smith slumped in the first weekend of the tournament shooting just 6-of-19 from the field with 10 assists and 13 turnovers. That cannot continue against Kentucky if Louisville is going to prevail in Friday’s NCAA Tournament action.
Kentucky appears to coming together at the right time as well, although they have not sustained their play for as long as the Cardinals. The Wildcats have won four of five and nearly knocked off No. 1 seed Florida in the SEC title game 61-60. As usual, Calipari’s squad features a slew of talented freshman, some of which will be in the NBA next season. This has become Calipari’s calling card since coming to Kentucky, and it is hard to argue with the results.
Three of the freshman that will give Pitino the most concern are twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison as well as James Young. All three play guard and are 6’6, giving smaller units such as Louisville’s a lot of problems. The Cardinals have a veteran backcourt but neither Smith, Chris Jones nor Terry Rozier are listed over 6’1. With Smith slumping and the Harrison twins playing their best basketball of the season this becomes a major area of concern for Pitino.
So too is Kentucky’s best freshman of all, Julius Randle. The 6’9 freshman center will be a lottery pick in the NBA this summer and is another matchup problem for Pitino. The frosh averaged 16.0 ppg, 12.5 rpg and 3.0 apg this season and his consistency has helped fuel Kentucky’s recent surge.
This will be a tight game with the Wildcats clinging to a small edge because of the matchups involved. However, the Cardinals are the better team and have been all year. Smith has come through in a lot of NCAA Tournament games for Rick Pitino and will do so again Friday as Louisville stops Kentucky, 72-70.
Commentary by Mick Varner