Battle for the Bluegrass: If experience means anything, it’s U of L for the win on Saturday (but it won’t be easy)
Logic says the University of Kentucky will win that little basketball game tomorrow at Rupp Arena.
The Wildcats own two nearly insuperable advantages: physical superiority and leather-lunged fans – a combination that fails to win only when the home team is outhustled or outwitted.
The University of Louisville is capable of doing both, which makes this the most intriguing matchup college basketball is likely to see this year.
This game isn’t about Cats vs. Cards or Red vs. Blue. It’s about Youth vs. Experience – and the contrast is uncommonly stark.
UK relies on six freshmen and two sophomores whose combined collegiate experience amounts to 157 games. The Cardinals’ 11-man rotation includes four seniors and four juniors who have played 626 games.
Those eight upperclassmen have played in two straight Final Fours and won a national championship. The postseason experience of UK’s top players consists of a single game, a first-round loss in the NIT last spring.
If experience means anything, U of L will win on Saturday. It will use superior teamwork and big-game savvy to offset the Wildcats’ height advantage and ignore the rowdy crowd.
But it won’t be easy.
UK’s extraordinary length will put the Cardinals’ offense in a sour pickle. Clean looks on the perimeter will be as rare as red shirts in the Rupp crowd. U of L guards Russ Smith, Chris Jones and Terry Rozier are 5 to 9 inches shorter than the 6-foot-6 freshmen who police the three-point line for UK, forward James Young, and twin guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison.
U of L’s guards are quick and clever penetrators, but en route to the rim they will find one of the nation’s best shot-blockers, 7-foot center Willie Cauley-Stein.
Inside or out, crisp, creative passes will be required for the Cardinals to find open shots. Then they have to hit them. The Cats are tenacious rebounders who surrender few second chances on the offensive glass.
At the other end, U of L must disable the Cats’ offensive engine, freshman power forward Julius Randle.
Randle is a strong, skilled low-post player with a knack for drawing fouls and making shots in heavy traffic. But Rick Pitino, U of L’s Hall of Fame coach, found ways to stop Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan, and he’s had six days to draw up a plan for Randle. If his players can follow it without fouling out, UK will be forced to rely on Young and the Harrison twins, who are gifted but less reliable.
Saturday’s game is a chance for Pitino to show the strategic chops that earned him a bust in Springfield. It’s certainly an opportune time. He is 1-4 against UK since John Calipari came to Lexington and started importing McDonald’s All-Americans en masse.
Pitino has narrowed the talent gap in recent years, but UK once again has the longer, stronger team. These Cats, however, have struggled against ranked teams. Their penchant for rookie mistakes and individualistic offense is ripe to be exploited by a veteran team.
Trouble is, U of L hasn’t always played like a veteran team this year.
That’s partly because the Cards count two freshmen (Rozier and center Mangok Mathiang) and a junior-college transfer (Jones) among their top players. It’s also because the older Cardinals are experienced players but not experienced leaders.
Without Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng, the two best decision-makers from last year’s team, U of L frequently looked lost against a North Carolina squad that’s nearly as green as UK.
Pitino has had a month to remedy the mental lapses that led to the loss to Carolina. U of L has looked sharper in its six games since, albeit against mediocre competition. Saturday will go a long way toward showing whether the Cardinals can make a decent defense of their national title.
For UK, Saturday offers the chance to show that its talented youngsters can defeat a good team instead of merely coming close. Both teams will get a peek at their readiness for March, which is only two short months away.
Though players from both teams have downplayed the rivalry, you can bet your Christmas bonus they will play with postseason intensity tomorrow. The only players who know what it takes to succeed in that environment all wear red.
Louisville 74, Kentucky 68.
Youth will be served some other day.