What many Kentucky or Louisville basketball fans would like for Christmas is to have a win in Saturday’s UK-Louisville game in Rupp Arena in the annual Battle of the Bluegrass. It’s a game that five months ago seemed like one where Kentucky would be a solid favorite. Now with the way both teams are playing, Kentucky fans have a lot more reasons to worry and Louisville fans have a lot more reason to be optimistic.
In fact, after UK’s loss to Ohio State Saturday, it’s easy to make a case for why Louisville should be favored — something no one would have thought possible when the season started.
So who will win? What will be the keys to the game? Who has to play well for the Cats to win?
I asked those questions and more to several friends of mine in the media because I thought you would appreciate their thoughts/ insights.
Question: Have your thoughts about this year’s Kentucky- Louisville game changed since the season started?
Ryan Lemond, Kentucky Sports Radio: “Absolutely. Before the season started, I thought UK might run Louisville ‘off the floor.’ I thought UK had way superior talent, and Louisville’s talent was gonna be way down. Now I still believe UK has the superior talent, but Louisville is much better than I thought. Damion Lee is better that I thought. Louisville’s mixture of big guys is better than I thought. I now firmly believe it’s going to be a much closer game that I would have predicted back in October.”
Larry Glover, LarryGloverLive (WVLK 590 AM): “I never thought it would be a blowout, but I was always confident that UK would win. I still think UK probably wins, but it won’t be a shock if the Cards steal one.”
Keith Taylor, Kentucky Forward: “Yes, especially from Louisville’s perspective. Even with a soft non-conference schedule, I thought the Cardinals would struggle early, especially with the allegations surrounding the program. Although he’s maintained a low profile, especially with the media, Rick Pitino has done a solid job keeping focused on the task at hand. I thought this was a sure UK win in the preseason, but it will turn out to be a close game and a test for both teams.”
Tyler Thompson, Kentucky Sports Radio: “Definitely, but just because Louisville is much better than I originally thought. Fifth-year transfers Damion Lee and Trey Lewis quickly adapted to Rick Pitino’s system, and the Cards are shooting and defending really well, albeit against mostly far inferior opponents. This game went from one I didn’t worry about at all for Kentucky to one that, given UK’s woes recently, is pretty concerning.”
Mark Buerger, WLAP Sunday Morning Sports: “A little bit. After Kentucky ran Duke and Louisville struggled early, I thought this would be another easy UK win. I still think Kentucky has better personnel, but I’m not sure they’re all ready to play at the level that the UofL game usually requires.”
Dorian Craft, WLEX-TV sports anchor: “I think it will be a more difficult game than people originally anticipated. Louisville has been playing well, and played Michigan State tough a few weeks ago. How will the injury to Mathiang impact the Cardinals? We’ll have to wait and see. Speaking of wait and see, I think it will depend on what Kentucky team, and which Jamal Murray, shows up. If the Wildcats can put together two consistent halves similar to what we saw in the latter stages of the loss to Ohio State, I think Kentucky pulls out a close one at home against Louisville.”
Question: What will be the biggest key to the game for both teams?
Lemond: “Louisville definitely has the size advantage. If their ‘big butt’ guys can dominate in the paint and somehow get Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress in foul trouble … UK better look out. I feel like the whole key is the bigs. Louisville can throw four or five bigs at UK, and you know they are going to come right at Skal (Labissiere) and try to get him flustered or sent to the bench. That’s why Marcus and Alex are so vital for UK. They have to stay on the floor, and they have to play well. UofL has 20-25 fouls to give, and you can guarantee Rick Pitino is gonna use everyone one of them.”
Glover: “For UK, handling the physical nature of the game. It’s no secret that UK is a finesse team and the Cards will certainly test UK’s toughness. For UofL, they cannot get in foul trouble. If Damian Lee is saddled with foul trouble, UofL can’t win.”
Taylor: “Louisville will need to get solid performances from its top players, seniors Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, along with contributions from in-state players Ray Spalding and Quinton Snyder. As usual, Tyler Ulis has to play well for the Wildcats, while Skal Labissiere will need to step it up in the post for Kentucky to have somewhat of an edge underneath. The Wildcats have struggled with 3-pointers and will need to shoot well behind the arc to add to their arsenal, especially against its rival.”
Thompson: “For Kentucky, it’s the same issue that’s plagued them all year: the Cats must be stronger inside. Louisville is the best offensive rebounding team in the country and the Cats can ill afford to give them any second chances. Louisville also boasts a top ten defense, so Kentucky must finish at the rim, which hasn’t been easy for them this season.
“For Louisville to win, they have to contain Kentucky in transition. This UK team is best when they’re running, and for the Cards to have a shot, they need to limit the lobs and fast breaks.”
Buerger: “For Kentucky, keeping Poythress and Lee on the court. Neither of them can get in to foul trouble and miss a lot of minutes. Without them, Kentucky gets too vulnerable inside. For Louisville, I think it’s trying to limit Kentucky’s guards. If Murray and Briscoe get rolling, I think UK is in pretty good shape.”
Craft : “ Turnovers and free throws. You know this is going to be a physical contest with the way these two teams feel about one another, and I can’t see either team missing an opportunity to lay a little extra weight into their opponent. With Kentucky struggling from the free throw line so far this season, getting points at the charity stripe will be especially important for UK in this game. Taking care of the ball will also be key. Turnovers (usually) lead to free and easy points, which is something that neither team can afford to give away.”
Question: What Kentucky player has to play especially well for the Wildcats to win?
Lemond: “I think it’s gotta be Alex Poythress. He is the only real physical presence UK has inside, and I’m certain UofL is going to try and take advantage of that. If Alex plays the way he has been lately, UK is in good shape. But we say what happened out at UCLA when Marcus Lee got hurt and Alex was on the bench in foul trouble — the Cats had no inside presence at all. Zero! Alex was the hero in the Louisville game in the NCAA Tournament two seasons ago. I hope he can do the same thing at Rupp this season.”
Glover: “UK’s guards will be fine, but the key for the Cats is Marcus Lee. If he can give UK a double-double, the Cats should be fine.”
Taylor: “I believe Skal Labissiere will have to play at a higher level for Kentucky to win. Labissiere has shown flashes, but will need to be a dominate force in the paint. Kentucky’s post play has been a big difference in this game during the past few seasons and that hasn’t changed.”
Thompson: “Normally against Louisville, I would say Alex Poythress because Alex always plays well against the Cards, but this year I’m going with Isaiah Briscoe. Briscoe has emerged as Calipari’s new lockdown defender and may get the task of guarding Damion Lee, Louisville’s top scorer. Briscoe shined shutting down Duke’s Grayson Allen, so if he can contain Lee, Kentucky’s chances of winning will be much, much better.”
Buerger: “Ulis. He was a major factor in last year’s game and he should be again this time around. If he can keep the offense running smoothly and hold his ground well enough of the defensive end, Kentucky wins.”
Craft : “Jamal Murray. The Wildcats need to the Jamal Murray that showed up for the final 20 minutes of the game against Ohio State to be there from the start against Louisville. I think at this point in time, you can’t depend on Skal Labissiere for quality minutes, and you need to start looking elsewhere for a difference maker until he’s further along in his development. I think the X factor could also be the play of Marcus Lee, if Louisville focuses on shutting down Murray after watching his 33-point performance Saturday.”
Question: What do you expect the atmosphere to be like in Rupp and what kind of crowd treatment will there be for Pitino?
Lemond: “The UK/UofL crowd at Rupp is always the best of the season, and this year I fully expect it to be turned up a notch on the heels of the Louisville/hooker scandal. If I was a UK student, I would be ‘foaming at the mouth’ waiting on this game and a chance to heckle the Cards and Pitino. Pitino always gets booed at Rupp, but this year it may be deafening.”
Glover: “The atmosphere will be wild….as it always is. I’m sure, some UK fans will remind Pitino of the recent scandal … unless Cal makes a preemptive statement to the fans to take the high road.”
Taylor: “I expect the atmosphere to be very lively and I expect the Louisville coach to get his share of boos. I think people forget what Pitino did in his seven seasons at Kentucky. I think enough time has passed that most UK fans have mellowed somewhat, but that doesn’t mean they have respect for Louisville, either.”
Thompson: “As with any Kentucky/ Louisville game, it will be rowdy, especially given the scandal currently surrounding the Cards. I expect the crowd to mostly stay above the fray, but I wouldn’t put it past the student section to remind Louisville of the what’s happening off the court. As for Pitino, he’ll receive the usual chorus of half boos, half indifference.”
Buerger: “I’m really curious to see what happens this time around. Last time Pitino came to Rupp with a cloud over the program, Cal admonished the fans to keep it cordial. I’m wondering if we’ll see the same this time around. If not, it could be … colorful. Regardless, the atmosphere will be wild. It always is for this.”
Craft: “In one word, hostile. As much as Kentucky fans loved Pitino for bringing Kentucky back to prominence after the Eddie Sutton scandal, they haven’t forgotten how he left them for the supposedly greener pastures of the NBA. Add in the pre-season scandal and Pitino’s comments that this team was potentially his greatest, and I think it’s going to be a frosty greeting for Rick.”
Question: Finally, who wins the game and why?
Lemond: “Kentucky wins an ugly/brutal game 72-64.”
Glover: “UK wins but it won’t be easy. UofL likes to force guards into mistakes and that will be really hard against the best backcourt in the country. Also, keep an eye out for Poythress. I think Alex could have a couple of emotional plays to keep the fans stoked. UK 77-Louisville 71.”
Taylor: “I think Kentucky wins the game in a close one, 72-65. The homecourt is obviously an advantage and the Wildcats have an edge on the perimeter with their guard play. Again, UK’s bigs will need to play well for the Wildcats to keep the winning streak against the Cardinals alive.”
Thompson: “If Kentucky can push past their shooting issues and own the paint, they’ll win by ten. If not, it will be an ugly game, but in Rupp against Louisville under Calipari, I never pick against the Cats.”
Buerger: “Kentucky wins. They have better players. They’re at home. And I’ll believe Pitino is beating Cal again the next time I see it happen.”
Craft: “I’m going to be a optimist and say Kentucky. I think the injury to Mathiang really works in our favor, otherwise I’d be concerned about our ability to contain him in the post. It’s not going to be an easy victory, though. Rick Pitino will have his guys gunning for Kentucky and the Wildcat freshman haven’t experienced this rivalry yet, and I expect the early going to be rough before their nerves and adrenaline calm down and they start to settle in.”
. Hope all of you have a great Christmas. Thanks so much for letting me share University of Kentucky information and being part of your day once each week. Again, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions/ suggestions.