The Rivalry before The Rivalry

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This time next week we’ll be staring down another Louisville vs UK basketball game. But every season for the past eight years we’ve had a very good rivalry game with another in-state basketball power. As a matter of fact we’ve played Western Kentucky a lot longer than we have the Wildcats. Western is Louisville Basketball’s third longest opponent in the history of the program. The series that started back in 1926 is tied at 39-39 with the Cardinals taking the last six straight.

What started as a somewhat friendly foe has also changed over the years and there are no more smiles in this one. Ray Harper likes his team’s to play an aggressive style of basketball and he will attempt to dirty things up if he can. The Cardinals found that out last year when tensions ran high in Diddle arena. This should be another good one Saturday and after the Cardinals stroll through cupcake city this should be a step up in competition.

The Louisville program and the Western program share a common thread. In 1944 Bernard “Peck” Hickman was hired as the Cardinals head coach. Hickman was a star guard for WKU and Coach Ed Diddle during his college playing days. He was the first coach to lead our Cardinals to a championship on a national level winning the NAIB Championship in 1948. He never had a losing season in his 23 years as the Cardinals head man.

“We play them because of the amount of respect we have for their tradition and their basketball abilities. Why start a series with say a Memphis or Cincinnati when you’ve got a great school right down the road in state with unbelievable tradition. Why not do that? That is what I have always believed in and Western Kentucky is one of the great traditions in college basketball.”-Coach Pitino

F 14 Ben LAWSON (4 PPG, 4.1 RPG)
F 23 Justin JOHNSON (17.2 PPG, 8.4 RPG)
G 1 Chris McNEAL (5.4 PPG, 3.7 RPG)
G 2 Aaron COSBY (10.2 PPG, 3.5 RPG)
G 25 Fredrick EDMOND (10.7 PPG, 4.7 RPG)

G 51 Chris Harrison-Docks (10.7 PPG, 1.1 RPG)
F 21 Nigel Snipes (12.7 PPG, 3.9 RPG)
G 1 Chris McNeal (5.4 PPG, 3.7 RPG)

Kenpom Rankings
Overall Rank 164th
Offense Adjustment Efficiency 105.0 ranked 110th
Defensive Adjustment Efficiency 104.6 ranked 240th
Kenpom predicts Louisville 79 Western Kentucky 69

Ray Harper’s teams are known for their blue collar work ethic. And the best player on this Western Kentucky team epitomizes that. Justin Johnson has already turned in a game this season where he had 16 points, 15 rebounds and 4 assist. He is a player that will find all kinds of ways to hurt you. He can create his own shot and can find his open teammates. He had a game this season where he was 10-11 shooting for 90.9%. He’s ranked 14th in the nation in field goal percentage. This kid has a lot of moxie and he will want to have a big day against the Cards.

Western Kentucky relies on Edmond, Cosby and Johnson to generate offense. Both Edmond and Cosby are dribble-drive demons, while Johnson can score anywhere on the floor. Harper has three scoring threats off his bench in Harrison-Docks (10.7 PPG), Snipes (12.7 PPG) and McNeal (5.4 PPG). The Hilltoppers will score in transition if it’s there, but it’s primarily a medium-tempo team that beats opponents with guard play and the low-post/wing scoring of Snipes and Johnson. If the score is in the 60s rather than the 70s or 80s, then the Hilltoppers are happy.

On the defensive side of the ball Western Kentucky’s primary defense is man-to-man, but the Hilltoppers sprinkle in some 2-3 zone and some full-court pressure, too. The Hilltoppers can aggressively attack opposing jump-shooters, secure in the knowledge that they have two good shot-blockers in Lawson and Johnson.

The Cardinals are on pace to have a historical season on the offensive side of the floor. Damion Lee and Trey Lewis have provided instant offense and both are doing it at a rabid pace. The Cardinals lead the nation in scoring margin at 31 points, and fifth in the nation in field goal percentage at 53% and have shot above that in eight of nine games this season. But I think the key to this game will be on the defensive side of the ball. Full-court pressure bothers this Western Kentucky team because it falls into the trap of playing faster than they should, resulting in turnovers. They average 17.6 turnovers a game 117th in the nation.

Like I mentioned above I look for Ray Harper to bring his team into the KFC Yum center on Saturday and make it an ugly game. Nothing will come easy especially around the basket and when there is a foul it will be a hard one. The Cardinals need a good hardnosed game like this because after this week they will be heading into the very challenging part of their schedule. I think the Cardinals win big in this one but think they’ll have to earn it.

Louisville 80 Western Kentucky 65