One of the greatest college basketball rivalries is renewed on Saturday. The Kentucky Wildcats travel to Louisville, Kentucky to take on their rival the Louisville Cardinals. Some people say its "big brother - little brother" but this season both teams are playing fantastic basketball. There is a lot at stake in this game. Here are the 5 biggest headlines for both teams heading into the matchup.
Battle of Unbeatens
Both teams come into the game a combined 23-0 and neither are looking to fall anytime soon. Kentucky is coming off a game where they destroyed UCLA every second of the game. Louisville has had two single digit wins already when they defeated both Ohio State and Western Kentucky by only 9 points apiece. The Wildcats have defeated a couple top 25 teams already in Texas, Kansas, and North Carolina. But the most surprising thing is that they have defeated every team by 10 or more points.
The best wins for Louisville have been against Ohio State and Indiana where they looked in control for most of the game. Louisville will still have to play the likes of Duke and Virginia in the rest of their schedule. But if Kentucky gets past Louisville, it will be easy sailing it looks like through the rest of their schedule.
This will be the toughest game all season for Kentucky.
The Wildcats have already had tough games against teams like Texas and North Carolina. But both games were at home and one of the teams had either a key player missing or was in a bit of a slump. Louisville is the 4th ranked team in the country based on the AP poll. This will be the first road game for Kentucky in counting neutral site games. Kansas and Texas were both ranked in the top 10 when Kentucky played them but both games were at home or on a neutral site court. Usually Kentucky fans travel pretty well also so neutral site games have a home game feel to them for the players.
No other crowd will be as loud as Louisville other than possibly at Florida. Emotions will be at an all-time high for both teams because of all the hatred for both teams and fan bases. It will be interesting to see if the very young Kentucky team can sound out the crowd and play 40 minutes of Kentucky basketball. One small mistake and it could cost the game for either team.
Both teams are elite defensive teams.
Kentucky has been known for their fantastic shot blocking the past couple of seasons including this year. Louisville has been known for their full court pressure defense every year that Rick Pitino has been there. Both teams are ranked in the top 10 in scoring defense (Kentucky #2, Louisville #8). Kentucky leads the country in blocks at 104 total through 12 games compared to Louisville who only has 68 through 10 games. A big reason for that is Willie Cauley-Stein who is the best defensive player in the country who can block every shot thrown up and get down to guard the guards for the Wildcats.
Louisville is 17th in the nation in the total steals but this ranking will probably rise after Tuesday's match with Cal State. Chris Jones lead the AAC last season in steals and is averaging 2.3 steals this season. If he is attacking the Harrison Twins every play, Kentucky will be in trouble. The first team to 60 will be in the best shape to win the game.
Past success of both programs.
Both teams have been at the top of their game the past couple of years. They combine to have won 2 of the last 3 national titles. As Kentucky won in 2012 with Anthony Davis and Louisville won in 2013 with Peyton Siva. Kentucky knocked Louisville out of the tournament in the sweet 16 last season on route to another final four. Also when Kentucky won their last national championship they defeated Louisville in the final four. Louisville has had at least 30 wins the past 3 seasons, they are the only team to do so. Kentucky overcame many obstacles last season to surprisingly make it to the national title game. Kentucky has been known to have outstanding recruiting classes.
Last season they had the reclaimed, "best recruiting class of all time". Surprisingly, most of that team returned and is better than ever. Aaron Harrison was the guy at the end of the games who would hit those big baskets. He did so in the NCAA tournament against Louisville, Wichita State, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Louisville has found the hidden gems in the recruiting classes. As they are only starting one 5 star player in Wayne Blackshear. Both teams will make far runs in the NCAA tournament regardless of the outcome of the game.
Montrezl Harrell and Willie Cauley-Stein leading the POTY race.
Both players have been outstanding this season. Montrezl Harrell was on track to have another double double but his ejection in the WKU game stopped the streak as he left the game with 14 points and 6 rebounds. He is the only player in the country to be averaging 16 PPG, 10 REB, and 61 FG%. Cauley-Stein is averaging 10.5 PPG, 6.7 REB, and 1.8 BLK. His stats don't pop off the page like Harrell's but when anyone sees him play it’s easy to see that he is the best player on the court every game.
He has been the best player on Kentucky this season and will show on a national stage against Louisville why he is one of the top players in the country. Harrell was a 1st team All-American coming into the season, everyone expected him to be this good. Harrell added the ability to make 3's in the offseason which has added to his success. The only thing holding Willie Cauley-Stein back is him not getting as much playing time as he should because how deep Kentucky is. There should be a front runner for the POTY race after this game.
Kentucky will be favored going to the game because they have been the most dominant team in the country to this point. But, Louisville will give the Wildcats their hardest test of the season. Kentucky has won 5 of the last 6 meetings and are leading the series 32-15. Both teams will be playing top notch basketball and neither team will give up a single point easily. The Battle of the Bluegrass is here, and one team has to win to remain undefeated. Both teams have a reasonable chance to win, but can the Cardinals really stop the most dominant team in the country? This season has been full of surprises and this game is just the beginning of the madness that is going to unfold.