StraitCards Previews: Louisville Cardinals (12-1) at Kentucky Wildcats (12-1)

Date – Saturday, December 31, 2011
Location – Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky. (23,000)
Time – 12:05 p.m. ET
Television – CBS, Ian Eagle (pbp), Clark Kellogg (color)
Radio – WKRD (790 AM, 101.7 FM) Paul Rogers (pbp), Doug Ormay (color)
Series – 28-14 Kentucky (last meeting: UK 78, U of L 63, 12/31/10 at KFC Yum! Center)
Officials – Tony Greene, Jamie Luckie, Michael Stephens

It is finally time for the Battle for the Bluegrass. Aside from the NCAA title game, this is the contest that the fans on each side want most, and this year’s edition doesn’t look to disappoint. It’s the first time in series history that Louisville and Kentucky have met as top-five teams. The Wildcats have won two straight in the series, matching Louisville’s two straight before that. Rick Pitino is looking to improve on his 4-6 record as Louisville’s coach against UK. Louisville has not defeated Kentucky since Edgar Sosa’s three-point dagger in the final seconds of the 2009 contest in Freedom Hall. This will be the Cards’ final non-conference game before the treacherous Big East schedule continues.

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U of L looks to bounce back after a pair of disappointing games, including suffering their first loss of the season to 12th-ranked Georgetown. The loss ended a 20-game home winning streak and was the first Big East tilt the Cards had dropped in Louisville since the Hoyas also took down the Cards on February 20, 2010 at Freedom Hall. Since Louisville joined the Big East, Georgetown is the only team with a winning record against the Cards.

Bouncing back will not be an easy task against the Wildcats in Rupp Arena. UK has not lost at home under head coach John Calipari, now in his third year at Kentucky since ducking out from Louisville rival Memphis State after the 2008-09 season. Among the improvements needed from U of L following the Georgetown loss are things like improving defense around the perimeter, rebounding, making free throws and improving shot selection in key moments.

Correcting these kind of fundamental issues in two days between games against top-15 opponents is not easy, but such is the normal life of any Big East team and things do not get easier for the Cards from here to the season’s conclusion. UK comes in boasting top-15 rankings in several stat categories, including points (10th-82.5), rebounds (12th-40.9) and field goal percentage (12th-.498). Six players average double-digit scoring, including all five starters.

Standout freshman forward and unibrow aficionado Anthony Davis leads the team with 10.2 rebounds and 4.5 blocks per game, and also averages 11.6 ppg. Sophomore guard Doron Lamb leads the Wildcats in scoring with 15.8 ppg and has hit 27 of 55 3-point attempts this season. Other Wildcats in double-digit scoring are Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (13.5), Terrence Jones (12.1), Marquis “Red Polo” Teague (11.2) and Darius Miller (10.5). Any of these guys are capable of going off and giving U of L fits.

The battle to watch in this game is in the post. Gorgui Dieng has to play better defense and become more of a scoring option on offense to keep the Cards in the game. Going up against Davis will be tough and he will have to stay out of foul trouble so Rakeem Buckles or Chane Behanan are not left to guard Davis. Also, it would be nice for Peyton Siva to find his jump shot so the Cards’ struggling offense can get going and not rely solely on Russ Smith’s unpredictable shooting or Kyle Kuric. Kuric also need not have one of his disappearing act games—Louisville will be in serious trouble if he does.

There is simply no way to expect Louisville to go in and nail jumpers all day to earn a victory over this team in such a hostile environment, though it is certainly possible. It is going to take an extraordinary performance—there is no doubt about that. The national media has been waiting for this game as an unfair barometer for how good Louisville really is (though now they have already seen them lose a game). If the Cards manage to leave Lexington a winner, they will have a nice little mantle piece for the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee to appreciate when selecting the Louisville’s seed in March and Cardinal fans will have the bragging rights they oh-so desire for both the gridiron and the hardwood until next school year.

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