This week we have flown our flags a little higher and wore our gear with that little extra boost of pride. This is the Cards and the Cats and it just doesn’t get any bigger in college basketball. This year’s Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament will feature the 2012 and 2013 National Champions, and will be a rubber match of sorts between the last two champs of college basketball. The game will also feature programs with very different approaches to winning. The college basketball world will be watching to see if the team of grizzled veterans or the team of super freshman phenoms will rule the day.
Lucas Oil Stadium will be rocking Friday night and this will be the most anticipated Battle of the Bluegrass in years. It has been the Cats who have won the last 8 out of eleven in this battle head-to-head, but when looking at their entire body of work these teams have had similar success in the last 30 years. A series that started in 1913 these old rivals will meet for the 47th time on Friday night and for the 6th time in the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky holds the all-time lead in this series 31-15, (3-2 in NCAA).
This game was named the #1 OOC game by Sports Illustrated. Here’s what they said: “Two elite teams meet once again, eternal bragging rights (at least for another year), HoF coaches who can’t stand each other. It’s not always a pretty watch, but it’s compelling TV and the best soap opera in the sport at the moment.”
Once again, Kentucky started from scratch this season after losing a host of players to the NBA and transfer. The Wildcats started this season ranked number #1 in the country despite returning only two players who contributed to their NIT first round loss last season. That says a lot about their coach John Calipari and his success in recruiting the best. As they have done since Calipari arrived on campus, the Cats once again have many blue chip athletes leading their team and many have dubbed this year’s UK freshman class as the best ever. This team does not compare to any team that Calipari has had since he’s been in Lexington, and he doesn’t have that group of upperclassman that can contribute on a nightly basis. He will start 5 freshman Friday night.
This group of UK freshman had been struggling to find their mojo. That resulted in a 9 loss regular season and a tumultuous plunge in the national rankings becoming one of only a few teams to start the season ranked 1st and finish unranked. Kentucky had suffered from defensive lapses against better teams. In their 9 losses, they allowed teams to be offensively efficient and shoot a high effective FG%. They could not score consistently, because they did not communicate, share the ball and play solid basketball. In the post season all that has changed. They are now playing more consistent on the defensive end of the floor and playing more like a team on the offensive end. In the Ken Pom ratings they currently have a 116.0 Offensive Adjustment efficiency ranked 17th and 96.0 Defensive Adjustment efficiency ranked 25th.
Much has been mentioned this week about match-ups in the game on Friday, and while the eye test suggest some obvious match-up issues the numbers would suggest those issues may not be as bad as they look. College basketball analyst Dan Hanner of RealGM.com took a closer look at all 150 players left in the Sweet 16 and below is a look at where UK and UofL players were listed as top players in certain categories:
-Among his top 7 Rim Protectors he has UK’s Willie Cauley Stein ranked 2nd with a 12.2 Block% and UofL’s Mango Mathiang ranked 5th with a 9.9 Block%.
-Among his top 16 players who rely on offensive rebounds to score due to their limited offensive skills he has UK’s Dakari Johnson ranked 2nd with a 17.5 offensive rebound%, UofL’s Stephan Van Treese ranked 4th with a 13.8 offensive rebound%, and UK’s Alex Poythress ranked 10th with a 11.6 offensive rebound%. Not mentioned by Dan in his research, but important to note that Van Treese has 43 rebounds in his last five games.
-Among his top 26 scorers he has Luke Hancock ranked 6th shooting 34% from the 3 point line (65 made, 192 attempted), and has Wayne Blackshear ranked 17th shooting 40% from the 3 point line (45 made, 112 attempted). Dan also mentions Luke and Wayne don’t just fit into one category. Mentioning Luke’s ability to drive to the basket and get fouled. And mentioning Wayne being a versatile defender. No UK players made this list.
-Among his top 13 pass first point guards he has Terry Rozier ranked 12th with a 116.9 offensive rating, 17.0 assist%, and 3.0 assist/turnover ratio. No UK players are listed in this category.
-Among his top 7 players when it comes to passing and scoring he has UK’s Andrew Harrison ranked 4th (11 PPG, 21.7 PctPoss, 104 ORtg, 23.1 A%, 1.4 A/To), and has UofL’s Chris Jones ranked 6th (10.4 PPG, 21.7 PctPoss, 110.2 ORtg, 20.6 A%, 2.1 A/To). He also mentions Harrison’s ability to drive and get to the lane.
-Among his top 19 pure scorers he has UofL’s Montrezl Harrell ranked 5th (14 PPG, 69.1 Tempo, 72.9 PctMin, 22.1 PctPoss, 117.6 ORtg), UK’s Aaron Harrison ranked 7th (14.1 PPG, 66.5 Tempo, 79.7 PctMin, 20.7 PctPoss, 116.6 ORtg), UofL’s Russ Smith ranked 10th (18.1 PPG, 69.1 Tempo, 72.9 PctMin, 30.8 PctMin, 30.8 PctPoss, 114.5 ORtg), UK’s Julius Randle ranked 15th (15.1 PPG, 66.5 Tempo, 75.9 PctMin, 26.3 PctPoss, 111.2 ORtg), and UK’s James Young ranked 17th (14.3 PPG, 66.5 Tempo, 80.1 PctMin, 22.0 PctPoss, 110.4 ORtg).
In this Dan adds that Russ is the highest volume scorer left in the tournament and has the second highest steal rate. He also mentions that Julius Randle is a monster on the offensive glass,
To read Every Player In The Sweet Sixteen By: Dan Hanner click here:
The Cardinals come into this game having a more consistent and effective back-court while Kentucky has the more consistent and effective front-court. In college basketball guard play is crucial to a team’s success rate especially in the NCAA Tournament. The speed of Russ Smith and Chris Jones is going to be very difficult for the bigger Kentucky guards to stay in front of. I really think they win that battle. More importantly in this one is if Montrezl, Stephan, and Mango can somehow neutralize the play of Cauley-Stein, Poythress and Randle. The winner of that three spot battle between Young, Blackshear and Hancock will also be a huge factor in this game.
Coach Pitino has had these guys away from all of the hype all week. He will have them ready to go. It will just come down to the execution of the game plan. Our Cards aren’t far removed from the biggest stage in college basketball, so the game on Saturday should be a walk in the park for our veterans. All the pressure is on the young guys in blue. Their room for error has been and will be very narrow in this game. I think it will all be too much for them to handle.
I’m ready to stop reading and talking about this game. I’m ready to head to Indy and watch what will be another great chapter in this rivalry. I do think this will be an incredible game and it will come down to the smallest intangibles that will make the difference. I like our Cardinals in this game and think they’ll be headed to the Elite 8 on Sunday and Coach Pitino will be 12-0 in the Sweet 16. Go Cards!.