Outside of Duke-North Carolina, there is no better college basketball rivalry than Louisville-Kentucky.
Lexington and Louisville are separated by a mere 70 miles. Both schools have had great success in the past several decades, and for all of the bad blood harbored on both sides, they have much in common.
There’s the close proximity. There’s Rick Pitino, Louisville’s longtime head coach, who once won a national championship at… Kentucky. There’s the shared physical style – face either school on Wednesday night, and rest assured, you’ll feel it Thursday morning. The Wildcats last won a national championship in 2012; not to be outdone, the Cardinals followed with a crown of their own in 2013. Players that almost went to Kentucky went to Louisville, and vice versa, but never doubt that they quickly developed a healthy disdain for their opponent.
Like any great rivalry, there are moments that stand out, like Swoops Jenkins’ last-second tip-in to lift Kentucky to a one-point victory in 1987. In the 1994-95 season, Louisville won the state of Kentucky. A year later, the Wildcats won the national championship. There was the Pitino return game – Louisville’s new head coach was as well-versed in Kentucky basketball as anyone, but in 2001, the Cardinals were no match for the Wildcats.
John Calipari arrived in Lexington in 2009 and pumped new life into the rivalry. In 2012, the two teams met in the Final Four. Anthony Davis and the Wildcats downed Louisville en route to the national crown. In 2014, Louisville came oh-so-close to knocking off Kentucky in the Sweet 16. The Wildcats prevailed in a five-point thriller.
Wednesday night’s game will mark the 13th time Pitino and Calipari have squared off against one another with both of their teams ranked. That ties an AP Poll-era record. Lately, it’s been all Kentucky – the Wildcats have bested the Cardinals eight of the last nine times they’ve played, with Louisville’s lone win coming in 2012-13, the season it was doused in confetti.
Kentucky leads the all-time series 34-15 and is 4-2 against Louisville in NCAA tournament play. But make no mistake: playing at home, the Cardinals have a prime opportunity to tally another in the win column on Wednesday.
Let’s break down tonight’s matchup.
No. 6 Kentucky at No. 10 Louisville, 7 p.m. ET
When Kentucky is on offense: Malik Monk, do you have another 47 points in you?
Louisville leads the country in defensive efficiency, but even the best defenses generally have an area in which they’re vulnerable. That might be true of the Cardinals, but if it is, they’ve yet to show it. Opponents hit an icy 28.7 percent of their three’s against Pitino’s vexing hybrid defense, and relatively speaking, they’re even worse from closer in; offenses are making a lowly 39.7 percent of their 2-pointers against the Cardinals.
Yikes. Luckily for the Wildcats, they have Monk, an unconscious gunner who is capable of beating teams one on five on the right night. He doesn’t have to drop 47 points again for UK to win (though it would certainly help!), but he needs to be good, and Kentucky needs at least one more person to make some outside shots.
The Wildcats rank fifth in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency. They’re good because A) they have one of the best backcourts in the nation, and B) they generate a ton of possessions. Calipari’s offense ranks in the top-10 in offensive rebounding rate and turnover percentage; those extra looks are pivotal, because UK shoots a blah 34.2 percent from 3-point range as a team
You’re not going to get much at the rim against Louisville. That’s life at the Yum! Center. The Cardinals rank second in the country in block percentage; Anas Mahmoud, Mangok Mathiang, Raymond Spalding and Jaylen Johnson all average more than a swat per game. Some teams struggle to find one big man who can protect the rim; the Cardinals have four, and they almost always have two on the court at the same time.
That’s significant in itself, but there’s a trickle-down effect; having interior stalwarts makes perimeter defenders’ lives much, much easier. They can run shooters off of the 3-point line with aggression; part of the reason why Donovan Mitchell and Quentin Snider can live in opposing guards’ chests is because they know if they get beat, they have two lines of security waiting to gobble up shots behind them.
Kentucky needs to get out in transition. That’s absolutely crucial, and it falls in line with the Wildcats’ preferred style. But in the half court, Louisville is going to force them to take mid-range shots. They need to make them. Monk can get buckets from anywhere on the court, but his backcourt mate might be even more important on Wednesday.
If De’Aaron Fox had a consistent jump shot, he might be the best player in college basketball. He’s a freak athlete as a point guard, but he’s also extremely intelligent. Fox is the primary reason why Kentucky is so careful with the ball, and he’s the engine of the Wildcats’ vaunted transition attack.
His jumper isn’t great, but it’s also not broken. Kentucky has two good screeners in Bam Adebayo and Isaac Humphries, and when Fox has the ball, he’ll be able to get open pull-ups against the Louisville defense. Whether or not he makes them might be the most crucial aspect of this side of the floor.
When Louisville is on offense: This end of the floor is a tad less intriguing. Kentucky is balanced, but Louisville is (unapologetically) a defense-first team.
We may be living in the 3-point era of college basketball, but unless Monk goes crazy, you wouldn’t know it if you were sent from another planet and only watched tonight’s game. Louisville ranks 244th in the country in 3-point percentage, and its leading scorer averages 11.7 points per game.
“I’m not playing zone,” Calipari said at his pregame press conference. The he looked into the camera and dead-panned, “I might in this game, Rick.”
That’s not to say the Cardinals’ offense is incompetent. Far from it, actually. Louisville ranks 31st in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, and like Kentucky, it scores by limiting turnovers and creating second chances. The Cards rebound 40.2 percent of their own clanks, which is good for eighth in America.
But that presents a conundrum against Kentucky. Crash the glass with vigor and come up empty, and this could turn into a Fox, Monk and Isaiah Briscoe fast-break dunk fest. Play it safe and retreat, and where exactly are the points coming from?
Louisville’s top-three scorers, Mitchell, Snider and Deng Adel, are all shooting less than 38 percent from the field. Mitchell and Snider can create a bit off the bounce, but setting ball-screens against Kentucky often feels like a pointless exercise. The Wildcats just switch Adebayo or Wenyen Gabriel onto the guard, both of whom are capable of sticking just about anyone on the interior or the perimeter.
Pitino gave a seemingly vanilla quote before the game, but it could prove to be prophetic.
“Nobody has the athletes and the talent that Kentucky has,” Pitino said. “They have great talent. That doesn’t mean you can’t beat them, but you just have to know what you are going up against. … It is going to be a great basketball game.”
If Kentucky cleans up the defensive glass, it will win this game. But while everyone associates the Wildcats with having big, hulking post players that dominate the paint, UK is struggling to rebound the rock this season on defense. It ranks a shocking 240th in defensive rebounding rate on the year, so by all means, Louisville should crash the boards. There’s no other realistic way to manufacture offense.
Kentucky’s low defensive rebounding rate is skewed a bit; their guards aren’t encouraged to gang rebound. They’re encouraged to do precisely the opposite, which is to leak out in transition. It’s a strategy that’s worked for them thus far. But when the Cardinals are on offense, whichever team controls the boards is the likely winner of this game.
Prediction: Louisville 72, Kentucky 70