We haven't shared space on Big East Coast Bias very often. Nevertheless, with just a little over 24 hours until the Big East Tournament champion Louisville tips off against Kentucky tomorrow in the Final Four, it's worth it to me to make an exception. Below is a preview of the game written by a proud Kentuckian and one of the most knowledgeable Kentucky fans I've ever met. He also happens to be my best friend. So here are notes on the game from B.J. White.
I’ve been following college basketball for almost 30 years now. In my very first recollection of a game I remember only two things: a very orange court, and my dad pacing around the living room saying over and over again ‘if this game goes into OT, we lose’. I don’t remember the score or the players. I just remember that orange court and how serious my dad was. I know now that was the ‘Dream Game’ in 1983, when Crum launched a full court press in that OT period and Kentucky just could not withstand the heat. The Old Man was right about that one. Now it comes full circle: Kentucky versus Louisville in the Final Four. If you would have told me at the beginning of the season that this would be the story that would play out, I’d have offered to sell you some real estate in Dubai.
I’ve seen every Kentucky-Louisville matchup since, and one thing I have learned is that in the regular season matchup, anything can happen.
Over the years, I have learned what defines a big game. The bright lights. The stage. The story lines. But this matchup Saturday night, to say it is a big game, would be the definition of an injustice. In fact, that would be the understatement of the century. It’s hard, as a born and bred Kentuckian, and a Kentucky fan living in Louisville, to articulate the magnitude, especially in terms of what it means to the state and its citizens. It is colossal - enormous and larger than life. I’ve seen it written that this is the biggest sporting event in the state’s history. I’ve done some thinking on that statement, and I cannot think of a bigger event. The Kentucky Derby is always big and the world is always watching. But the losers there get to run another day on another track. The losers in this one…well, we all know there is no tomorrow. Battle lines have been drawn and there are stories of brothers not talking to brothers all week long. I am beginning to wonder if the state may implode on itself before 6:09 Saturday arrives.
So here’s my breakdown on what would make me nervous and confident as a fan of each team.
If I were a Louisville fan, one word would make me nervous: weapons. Kentucky has them all over the court. Any one guy is liable to torch you for 20 points. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones are matchup nightmares, especially with the way the two have been playing as of late. As a team, they have demonstrated that they can win in the half court (they won three games in a row without a transition basket), and they have demonstrated they can win a track meet (cue: Indiana game). They play excellent defense. They take care of the ball. They rebound. They get to the free throw line at a double rate their opponents, and they convert. They do not quit. They play HARD.
So what is the recipe to beat them? In my mind, you have to frustrate them. I’ve seen occasions this year, especially in the not so long ago SEC tournament, where they force shots early in the shot clock where you just sort of raise an eyebrow (no pun intended, AD). Really, was that the best shot you could have gotten?
As a Louisville fan, what would make me confident is the fact that my team has all the tools to frustrate Kentucky. Pesky guards in Peyton Siva and Russ Smith to harass Kentucky’s ball handlers. Kentucky hasn’t faced full court pressure like Louisville’s since the New Year’s Eve match up. And we all remember what happened there: it forced Kentucky into 20 turnovers, 8 of them alone from senior Darius Miller. It was painful watching Kentucky try to bring the ball upcourt. Add to that the fact that Louisville’s press has gotten BETTER, and Kentucky turned the ball over a bunch against Baylor.
In that first meeting, Kentucky killed Louisville on the glass. This is another area where Louisville has improved drastically since their first meeting, and something that I would feel confident about if I were a fan. Add to that the fact that Gorgui Dieng has established himself as an eraser on one end, a competent shot blocker and hard-nosed rebounder, and a threat to score up to 15 feet away on the other end, and you feel comfortable that Anthony Davis will be neutralized. Mississippi State built a double digit lead on Kentucky earlier this year by drawing Davis away from the basket. Dieng can very well do the same thing. So that’s one less matchup to worry about. Draw Davis away from the basket and open the lane for Siva to probe for layups or kick-outs. Siva’s decision making (with the exception of a critical stretch in the Florida game where his teammates bailed him out) has been much improved through the BE and NCAA tournaments. And of course there is Chane Behanan. This guy thrives in big game pressure. He talks the talk, but he has the derriere and skill set to back it up.
As a Kentucky fan, there are a few things that worry me immensely. First of all is that nobody expected Louisville to be here. They’re in a win-win situation, and that makes me nervous. Perhaps I wouldn’t be so nervous except that Pitino is a wizard in these scenarios. Not only is he a master game planner, especially given a week to prepare, he is a master motivator. Playing the underdog role with Pitino at the helm makes me shiver. Whatever the game plan is, you can bet all the money in the bank that his team is going to execute it to perfection. You can bet that his team will be loose and will not be rattled. They will not be intimidated, and added to the underdog motivation, they are seeking a bit of revenge for that game in December. They know Kentucky is good. They want to prove that role players playing together as a fundamentally sound, cohesive unit can beat a team of blue chip NBA guys. I also worry about senior play in big games. Kyle Kuric had a dismal day in their first meeting. Seniors play out of their heads when the season is on the line. A guy that can shoot the ball like Kuric, that makes me antsy.
On the flipside, as a Kentucky fan there are some things I feel very confident about. I feel confident that these guys are determined and focused on one thing, and we all know what that is. They have a desire and will to win, and they love each other like brothers. I don’t think they really care that it is Louisville they are playing or the rival story lines. They see Louisville merely as their next opponent, and they know that if they play their best, nobody can beat them but themselves. I also feel comfortable with the way Terrence Jones has stepped up his play over the past dozen games. John Calipari has been practicing for some time now with Davis on the B-team and with Jones at the center position. This, and Cal’s superb handling of Jones’ enigmatic personality, has turned the season around for Jones. When he is on his A game, as he was for stretches of the Baylor game, Kentucky becomes a force to be reckoned with. I think Jones, and Teague’s handling of the ball, become the X factors in this one for Kentucky. I also like the mismatches on paper. But a game of this magnitude often cancels out what statistics say.
So, that’s my two cents worth. Waiting for my prediction? I’ll keep that to myself.
At some point, though, you get tired of reading everything and at some point you feel that the same things are being said over and over again.
So I pull another memorable quote from the Old Man: it’s time to lace ‘em up, toss the ball in the air, and see what happens.