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Ben Woods

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Cards Stand a Chance

Posted: 03/30/2012 11:15 am

This isn't David versus Goliath.

Even though most media are giving the University of Louisville little chance at beating the University of Kentucky in Saturday's opening Final Four matchup in New Orleans, that doesn't mean one should expect a blowout.

Kentucky has been dominant in the tournament, winning by an average of 14 points a game. The Wildcats boast two of the nation's top players in freshman center Anthony Davis and freshmen forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, both of whom seem destined for long NBA careers. The next four top players on the roster -- junior forward Terrence Jones, freshman guard Marquis Teague, sophomore guard Doron Lamb and senior guard Darius Miller -- should all be drafted as well. By any calculation, this looks like a powerhouse team.

Louisville certainly has a few potential NBA players (junior guard Peyton Siva, sophomore center Gorgui Dieng and freshman forward Chane Behanan), but no selections this year. Fortunately for the Cardinals, this isn't a one-on-one tournament, but a team game.

A quick look at Ken Pomeroy's team stats show that Louisville is No. 1 in the country in Adjusted Defense, and Kentucky is 11th. On the flip side, Louisville is 102nd in Adjusted Offense, while Kentucky is No. 1. This again looks to be in solid favor of the Wildcats. Except that Louisville just faced the nation's No. 3 defense in Michigan State but still managed to put up respectable offensive numbers (38.2 percent field-goal shooting, 39.1 percent 3-point shooting).

While neither team wants to slow the game down, both count on their defenses to enable and ignite the offenses. During the regular season Kentucky led the NCAA in blocked shots with 9.79 a game; Louisville ranked 30th in blocked shots (4.86/game) and seventh in steals (9.11/game).

The teams will try to make the other beat them with the 3. On the year, Louisville is subpar, shooting only 31.7 percent from beyond the arc. Even though Kentucky is far superior in this category (38.0 percent during the season, 44.9 percent during the postseason), the Cards held the Cats to just 18.8 percent 3-point shooting back on Dec. 31, a 69-62 UK victory in Lexington, Ky.

Here are six things that will occur Saturday:

  • Kentucky will open a sizable lead in the first half or early second half. The Wildcats are dominant enough that even if they aren't having a great shooting night, their defense will propel them to at least a 12-point margin in the first 25 minutes. Baylor jumped out to a 5-point lead Sunday, only to see Kentucky reel off 14 straight en route to a 20-point halftime lead.
  • Louisville will cut the deficit to something manageable. In the first meeting, Kentucky raced to a 15-point lead 15 minutes in, only to see the Cards score 13 in a row. And this was in Rupp Arena.
  • Louisville will change defenses. Confusion is on the side of Louisville. Florida was the only team this postseason who figured out the matchup zone. A lot of credit goes to Gators coach Billy Donavan, a protégé of coach Rick Pitino. The Cards cannot let the Cats get in their comfort zone on the offensive side.
  • Kentucky will make more than three 3-pointers. Regardless of the defense thrown at them, there is too much talent on the Wildcat squad to score only 9 points on 3-pointers.
  • Louisville will not be outrebounded again by 20. Kentucky, with its size and length, has one of the most formidable frontcourts in the country. The Cats grabbed 49 rebounds in the first meeting, to just 28 against the Cards. Since then, Louisville has improved its rebounding and actually won the battle of the boards against 1 seed Michigan State, 34-32.
  • Kentucky will make its free throws. A point of contention in past teams for coach John Calipari has been free throws. It probably cost him the 2008 championship with Memphis. This team, however, makes enough free throws, making almost 73 percent for the season.

Speaking of free throws, Kentucky shot 16 more than Louisville in the first meeting, although some of these were during mop-up time. The teams combined for 51 fouls. Tournament officiating has been loose, for the most part, and no one wants to see this remarkable matchup turn into a free-throw fest.

Does Louisville need to play a perfect game to win? Some think so, but after reviewing the first game and statistics, it may not be a necessity. Siva was still nursing a sore ankle during the first matchup, and the team didn't seem to gel until late January. The Cards shot 32.3 percent from the field and 22.2 percent from 3-point range, both well under season averages. A lot of this had to do with Kentucky's excellent defense. But Michigan State actually has a better-ranked 3-point defense (15th, at 29.9 percent) than Kentucky (55th at 31.5).

Of course, both teams have improved since that Dec. 31 meeting. The spread on the game (currently about 8 points in favor of Kentucky) is reasonable, but if this is a 5-point game with five minutes to go, anything can happen. If Louisville wins, this won't be Villanova over Georgetown or NC State over Houston, but merely a pretty good squad beating a great team on a stage of Biblical proportions.

 

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